Critics react to Taylor Swift’s new Folklore album

Like most of us, the world’s biggest pop stars have spent way too much time on social media during the coronavirus lockdown, and for many, it’s been a recipe for disaster. Numerous singers have been tricked into thinking their music is being sung from balconies in Italy, not to mention … whatever’s been going on with Kanye West for basically the entire summer. For Taylor Swift, however, it’s been a productive period. On July 23, 2020, the songstress revealed that she had written her eighth studio album during the COVID-19 lockdown — and that she was going to release it that very day.

For 10-time Grammy winner Swift, this kind of move is simply unprecedented. Her previous albums have been preceded by in-depth and drawn out marketing campaigns, so when she casually dropped details of Folklore on her various social media accounts, it wasn’t just Swifties that went crazy. The Twittersphere blew up as the countdown to Folklore‘s midnight release began, with predictions rolling in. Was Swift going back to her country roots? Was she going to shade anyone? Was the whole idea of a surprise lockdown album going to blow up in her face? Well, the first round of reviews are in, and here’s what the critics have been saying.

Taylor Swift's Folklore got a rave from this critic

Taylor Swift pinned The Guardian‘s review of Folklore to her Twitter feed, and after reading read said review, it’s obvious why. The British newspaper’s Laura Snapes gave the album five stars, commending Swift for moving away from the “bombastic pop” of her more recent releases. But was it the return to her country roots that some people have been waiting for? “This isn’t that album,” Snapes wrote. “Folklore is largely built around the soft cascades of piano, burbling guitar and fractured, glitchy electronica that will be familiar to fans of The National’s post-2010 output.” 

That’s no coincidence, either — The National’s Aaron Dessner produced the majority of the album. His influence pushes Swift’s sound even further away from traditional pop music, but that’s not such a bad thing, according to Snapes. “Swift’s most coherent record since her staunchly country days, it’s nonetheless her most experimental, developing on Lover‘s stranger, more minimalist end.”

Folklore is an 'extraordinary indie-folk makeover' for Taylor Swift

NME writer Hannah Mylrea gave Taylor Swift’s surprise 8th album a glowing review hours after it was released, hailing it as an “extraordinary indie-folk makeover” for the country star turned pop icon. Mylrea chronicled Swift’s evolution over her seven previous records in her write up, which contained a bold claim — the critic believes that Folklore may just contain Swift’s best track to date.

“‘The Last Great American Dynasty’ is a contender for the best Taylor Swift song ever written,” she wrote, adding, “Describing one woman’s life crumbling around her, the descriptive lyrics evoke those of ’80s singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, or the complex tales Bob Dylan spins in his lengthy, winding verses.” The track “Exile” also got a shout out, the only song to feature a guest vocalist (Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon lends his unmistakable tones to what Mylrea called a “melancholy duet”).

Variety's critic thinks Folklore is Taylor Swift's 'most overtly contemplative' album yet

Another critic who raved about Folklore in their review is Variety‘s Chris Willman. Describing Taylor Swift’s 8th album as a “highly subdued but rich affair” that marks a serious change in direction for the artist, Willman gushed, “It’s hard to remember any contemporary pop superstar that has indulged in a more serious, or successful, act of sonic palate cleansing.” In other words: he was blown away by the result.

Willman also praised Swift for moving away from all the bad blood stuff and instead concentrating on the music, pinpointing his two standout tracks from the album. “‘Illicit Affairs’ is the best cheating song since, well, Reputation’s hard-to-top “Getaway Car,'” the Variety reviewer concluded. “The champion romance song here is ‘Peace,’ the title of which is slightly deceptive, as Swift promises her beau, or life partner, that that quality of tranquility is the only thing she can’t promise him.”

Taylor Swift's Folklore got Billboard's critical acclaim

There’s a handful of music industry outlets that artists keep an eye on whenever they release new music, and Billboard is one of them. Swift’s Twitter activity suggests that she was up waiting for the first reactions to Folklore to roll in, so she’s probably already seen Billboard‘s review of her surprise 8th album, and she was likely grinning from ear to ear the whole way through. 

“Swift presents her new album as a songwriting tour de force, demonstrating the scope and depth of her artistic skill as she ruminates on the passage of time, grasps at fleeting memories and refuses to mince words or sugarcoat a sour reality, often while operating above intricate orchestral arrangements,” reviewer Jason Lipshutz wrote, adding that people should not mistake Folklore for a simple B-side album or vanity project. “There are bold, lofty ideas all over these songs, and Swift is ready to scale them.”

This critic thinks Taylor Swift was 'born to make' to Folklore

According to USA Today‘s Patrick Ryan, Folklore is “the album that Taylor Swift was born to make.” That statement might rile fans of the singer’s earlier works, but Ryan really was that impressed with Swift’s secretive 8th record. “Every track on the decidedly un-radio-friendly album is a treasure trove of evocative metaphors and diary-like lyrics, managing to capture familiar feelings in ways you didn’t know were possible,” Ryan wrote. “The gentleness and unhurried pace of Folklore give her words more room to breathe, allowing them to hit that much harder.”

The critic was quick to note that the traditionally PG friendly Swift included some explicit lyrics in her music for a change, dropping “multiple F-bombs” in songs like “Mad Woman”, which Ryan believes is a shot at controversial music mogul Scooter Braun among others. “It’s impossible not to read [it] as a searing rebuke of the men — and women — who have tried to control or criticize her.”

Taylor Swift's Folklore is 'exquisite, piano-based poetry'

Yet another critic who waxed lyrical about Folklore in their review was Independent‘s Roisin O’Connor, who admitted that it was an “unconventional album” for someone like Taylor Swift to drop out of nowhere, but that didn’t take away from the fact that it’s a “near-perfect” piece of work. Unlike some of her peers, Independent‘s music correspondent singled out the singer’s long-time song writing partner and co-producer, Jack Antonoff, for praise.

Most early reviews discussed the clear influence of The National’s Aaron Dessner and the duet with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, but O’Connor believes that Antonoff also had a hand in creating the addictive yet melancholy sound of Folklore, calling his co-written track “Mirrorball” one of their best collabs to date. “It’s uninhibited, dreamlike, shimmering,” O’Connor wrote, adding, “The instrumentation builds like the swell of waves before they crash against the shore. Swift has always had a particular talent for describing secret behaviour in exquisite detail — on Folklore, she’s outdone herself.”

Even The Sun's critic called Taylor Swift's Folklore 'passionate and reflective'

British newspaper The Sun hasn’t always been kind to American celebs (just ask Johnny Depp), but the tabloid didn’t have a bad word to say about Taylor Swift’s unexpected 8th album. In another five-star review, Senior Showbiz Reporter Howell Davies called Folklore a “passionate and reflective” record that forgoes the polished production values that Swift has enjoyed in the past. Davies praised the harmonica-laden track “Betty” for taking Swift as close to her country roots as she’s dared to venture in years, but (The Sun being The Sun), the gossip-worthy track “Mad Woman” was named as a highlight.

“If it had brash production it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 2017’s Reputation, but here it is more measured and mature, with soft percussion, guitars and passionate vocals,” Davies wrote, adding, “She has pivoted entirely to make music which will be so soothing to millions of people as the world struggles with the lockdown in which it was written.”

One critic's somewhat guarded review suggests Taylor Swift's Folklore is 'something new'

David Smyth of London’s Evening Standard wasn’t a fan of Ryan Adams’ “patronizing indie makeover” of Taylor Swift’s album 1989, but Folklore is an entirely different story. “She still can’t write a song that isn’t immediately catchy, but the delicate textures in the music are something new and highly attractive,” Smyth wrote in his review.

Most critics have been loving Swift’s duet with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and Smyth is no different (he called “Exile” a “particularly lovely” track), but he’s also a fan of “Seven” — what he described as a “wisp of a song” that sucks you in from the first chord. “On her hit single ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, Taylor Swift expressed her disappointment in an ex-boyfriend for listening to ‘some indie record that’s much cooler than mine,'” Smyth wrote, adding, “Now, with album number eight, she’s finally made a cool one of her own.”

Taylor Swift's Folklore is a 'timeless' album

Some people assumed that Taylor Swift being with British actor Joe Alwyn would dull her creative spark, but their apparently happy relationship “has not tempered her acute observations on pain” according to the Deputy Arts Editor of iNews, Sarah Carson. “Folklore is no mere title: Swift borrows folk tradition in these 17 vignettes, reflecting on a past imagined, regretted, and long gone, and discards both country and pop in favour of sparse, delicate indie-folk,” Carson wrote in her review of Swift’s surprise 8th album.

“It is the most sophisticated she has sounded and the record is less confessional than, with nothing but time to self-scrutinise, a confession.” Carson lauded. The critic even went as far as calling Folklore “timeless” and she believes that we will look back on it in years to come as a defining album of the day. It should be noted that fans are already speculating that Swift and Alwyn have split up, based on Folklore‘s melancholy content.

There is a least one critic who isn't over the moon with Taylor Swift's Folklore

Taylor Swift’s 8th album has been reviewed very positively across the board, but it’s not quite the flawless masterpiece that early headlines suggested, at least according to reviewer Emma Kelly. Writing for British outlet the Metro, Kelly agreed that Folklore was a brilliant change of pace for Taylor Swift, but she wasn’t totally head over heels like the vast majority of her peers.

“It’s not an entirely perfect album — around track six, ‘Mirrorball’, Folklore loses its momentum and has a bit of a lacklustre three song run (along with ‘Seven’ and ‘August’), and you really feel that this is a 16-song album (even without bonus track ‘The Lakes’).” Kelly made it clear that she very much approved of the changes overall, however. “Folklore puts the focus back on pure Swift songwriting magic, with the star shining lyrically more than she has in years.”

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