I wish I could remember where I once heard the brilliant theory that the band Mumford & Sons were like the Cheetos and sweatpants of folk music. I recall the coined term “gateway folk” being the entry point to this analogy, essentially comparing the band’s music to smoking pot, which leads to the harder (read: better) stuff (as the old way of thinking goes). The idea here is that, though it may be offensive to some to call a particular artist’s music “folk,” you can’t stay mad at it if it opens up the floodgates to “actual” folk music, which requires a more determined path toward discovery on the part of the listener.
I felt a similar emotion to this when Taylor Swift surprise released her eighth and ninth studio albums, folklore and evermore, in July and just last week, respectively. I rolled my eyes at those calling this new sonic and aesthetic path a crossover into folk music, or those claiming this as a formal stepping away from pop music. More accurately to me, these are singer-songwriter pop records dressed in the kind of costume-y folk garb of woolen coats, messy braids, and wispy cotton nightgowns, folksy on the surface. But the truth is, I’m not sure I care, because they are, without question, the strongest, most grown-up work of her career.
When this long year (and pandemic) finally come to an end, we’ll look back on the culture bred from it: the solitude and the steady decline of mental health, the grief and loss, and far too much time with our own thoughts, demons, and insecurities. The next few months will prove particularly fascinating as we’ll begin to see the rollout of music created with real intention during this time (rather than albums created pre-pandemic and shelved for later release). So far, it has been easy to draw parallels between lyrics from new music and our current state of emotions when writing about it. But soon it will be more literal. In many ways, Swift’s folklore was the first “pandemic album,” thanks to the resources and power she has at her fingertips to record and release the music she’s writing right now. But it isn’t a pandemic album in the way you might assume. Rather than the songs on folklore and evermore speaking to the moment, they offer a magnificent escape from it, like a juicy choose-your-own-adventure novel populated with the vast worlds of richly thought-out characters.
A longtime Swift fan (I was 16 when I heard “Tim McGraw”), I first listened to folklore on a long walk in the woods alone, in a totally unfamiliar area of coastal Massachusetts. It was absorbing and emotional; I cried several times. I listened so closely that by the second time through, I had already memorized some of the stories. The up-tempo bop “the last great american dynasty” takes us on a fantastical tour through the history of Rebekah Harkness, the quirky widow of the Standard Oil heir, before unveiling the Easter egg we never suspected: Swift now inhabits Harkness’ old home. The stripped down “peace” tries to reckon a normal, healthy relationship with a chaotic, public life. Supremely catchy “the 1” introduces us to a narrator learning to be more self-assured and less concerned what others think. The dark and brooding “mad woman” speaks to the experience of being called crazy and unallowed to show anger as a woman (coincidentally it also features Swift’s first f-bomb). This is a theme across folklore and evermore, and something Swift has been exploring more and more in her writing: all the bullshit double standards with which women are burdened. Bonus track “the lakes” recounts the utter bliss of anonymity on a romantic escape to England’s atmospheric lakes district. “exile” finds her duetting with Bon Iver (who also makes an appearance on evermore’s stunning title track) as sparring ex-lovers. Amid these interconnected, detailed plots of intrigue, illicit secrets and rebuilding oneself in the wake of heartbreak and loss, is a beating heart without any of the glitz and polished accoutrements of Swift’s past albums.
Born of the same prolific songwriting period as folklore, evermore is billed as the “sister” album to its predecessor. With a second lockdown looming, my experience with evermore was far less immersive — a song here while laying in bed, another there while doing the dishes. Upon first listen, it felt like a catchall for the tracks that weren’t good enough to make it onto folklore. But a few days and many full listens later, its merits revealed themselves to me, slowly but surely. Where Swift showed a certain maturation on folklore, evermore takes that evolution even further. It is an advanced exercise in sophisticated storytelling with even more interwoven, fully fleshed-out leads like the jaded starlet of the dreamy “dorothea” and the scrappy grifters at the center of album standout “cowboy like me,” falling in love as they con rich folks out of money (ironically, Marcus Mumford contributes harmonies here). The latter has early ’90s Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride vibes. The bittersweet beauty “marjorie” pays homage to the lessons imparted by Swift’s opera-singing grandmother, and “’tis the damn season” relishes a no-strings-attached fling between two old flames in their shared hometown. An all-consuming and doomed extramarital affair takes over “ivy,” and a narrator gradually realizes their self-worth in a toxic relationship on “tolerate it.” Evermore was unmistakably cut from the same cloth as folklore, but it takes a more somber and serious shape, like the wiser big sister of earlier albums like Fearless and Speak Now.
Across both records, Swift has found her vocal sweet spot. We’ve heard her belt and strain, but she is best in her lower, breathier registers, which she embraces here. Working with new collaborator Aaron Dessner (The National) and longtime cohort Jack Antonoff, Swift built the worlds of folklore and evermore from a distance, exchanging voice notes and instrumental tracks virtually. The result is an extreme down-tempo shift that is quieter and more contemplative than we’ve ever heard from her before. These albums are expertly written, intricate and thoughtful, melodic and hook-y, even as they rein in the production bells and whistles in favor of simpler arrangements of piano, isolated bass lines, subtle strings and acoustic guitars.
Like the analogy goes, suspenders and a banjo don’t make it folk music, but perhaps it will blow the lid off something for listeners, leading to an exploration of lesser known artists making equally compelling work within the genre. Or maybe it will just give Swift a bit more cred within the roots and folk music community. Or perhaps more likely, it will just get us through this winter with a little more joy than we’d hoped for.