Not even a worldwide pandemic can slow down Taylor Swift.
After she called off her three-continent Lover Fest summer stadium tour on April 17, she went to work writing songs and recording a new album, “Folklore” (Republic), which she surprise-delivered late Thursday without her usual elaborate rollout. It arrived a mere 11 months after “Lover,” marking the quickest bounce back in her blockbuster eight-album career.
That lack of buildup was fitting for the post-megapop Swift. “Folklore” whispers “who needs hit radio.” Like Beyoncé, Swift is a cultural supernova who programs the world, not tries to fit into it.
“Folklore” could just as easily have been titled “Bon Voyage.” Sonically, Swift, long a pop omnivore, eschews the vibrant synth-pop of her recent albums and plugs into the chillwave sonic palate of Eau Claire’s Bon Iver, who duets on one track, and indie-rock favorites the National, whose Aaron Dessner collaborated on 11 of the 16 selections here.
The sound is atmospheric downtempo chamber-pop, secular hymns of gauzy impressionism bathed in cello, violin, viola and Mellotron. Swift’s voice is suitably restrained, too, relying on her deeper, more mature range, less on her breathy girlish vibe. In other words, without radio bangers and singalong fare (and with a couple of f-bombs), “Folklore” will disappoint her pre-tween and tween fans who crave repeated listenings.
Not only has Swift, 30, altered her sound, but her approach to lyrics has evolved, as well. Since she’s reportedly happy in love with British actor Joe Alwyn, perhaps her extravagant imagination sparked these mostly sad songs (though social-media speculation is he co-wrote two tunes under the pseudonym William Bowery). The songs are not self-referential or specifically autobiographical. In an essay, Swift explained the new collection is about imagery, people she’s known (or wish she hadn’t) and characters she’s never met.
“The Last Great American Dynasty” depicts Rebekah Harkness, the eccentric arts patron and oil heiress whose seaside Rhode Island mansion Swift bought. It’s curious but not the most compelling song here. The best numbers are more elusive.
“Exile,” the Bon Iver pas de deux, is a haunting, minimalist piano piece about a breakup that will resonate with the indie crowd, especially since he sings the first verse.
More typical of the “Folklore” oeuvre are “My Tears Ricochet,” which suggests Lorde produced by Enya, and “Invisible String,” the album’s happiest selection, framed by plucked guitar and violin.
Offering anger with a light touch, “Mad Woman” finds Swift simmering instead of exploding while the sadness-craving “Hoax” contends that “your faithless love is the only hoax I believe in.”
The dreamy “August” — the eighth song, right after “Seven,” get it? — may be the most conventionally Taylor tune here. Co-produced and co-written by her go-to collaborator Jack Antonoff, it has a bona fide hook and pronounced dynamics, two elements rarely experienced on “Folklore.”
Because of the pandemic, this project came together remotely, with two dozen musicians — including Twin Cities drummer JT Bates, who appears on three tracks — quarantined in their own studios.
One song with a particular character, “Betty,” seems out of place here. In a collection of very grown-up songs, a harmonica-punctuated, sing-songy tune mentioning high school homeroom seems so pre-2014 Swift. However, the veiled reference to teenage regrets has social media atwitter that this is the self-reflecting uberstar contemplating same-sex flirtation. Oh, Swifties can’t stop trying to interpret the meaning of her every word.
And they are listening. More than 1.3 million copies of “Folklore” were sold in the first 24 hours it was available for streaming. Swift’s new music may not be on today’s hit radio (though Twin Cities hipster station 89.3 the Current is playing the Bon Iver collaboration), but she’s still in the hearts of her millions of fans.
Now Swift’s next challenge is to figure out how to present these low-key gems in a post-pandemic concert. Because Taylor live is the affirming fix her followers need.
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