PopOff! Album Review: Swift and Antonoff’s Folklore

PopOff! Album Review: Swift and Antonoff’s Folklore

PopOff! Album Review: Taylor Swift’s Folklore   Swift and Antonoff’s Folklore

This review is going to require some backstory on my own musical past before we get to the meat of it. Strap yourself in and bring a sweater. I could get cold.

1st: My poetry teacher in college said to us, “People would rather each a cheese sandwich than read your poem.”

I have applied this to so many things in the world.  Basically get to the point, make it clear up front what it is about, right up front. If there is deeper stuff I can find later if I choose to look, great!  But I’m a busy man I got stuff to do like putting together the rye with this pastrami and this Swiss cheese.

2nd: I did not know Taylor Swift had a new album out until YouTube showed me an ad before some video on feeding Betta fish I was trying to watch.  It was the first time I’ve ever got an ad for a specific  music artist on YouTube thus is Swift’s buying power at Google.  And so the can of worms pops open.  And no, not the blood worms I’m supposed to feed my fish twice a week.

I hate, hate, hate, hate, hype.  I LOATHE it.  I don’t care how “surprise” it is. When sheep start instantly falling over themselves to praise something, I shut it off or start looking for dissenting opinions.  Critical thinking seems to be a dead art.  And you can’t declare something a masterwork that’s was only out for just over 24 hours.  And yet “universal” acclaim it is.  And universal acclaim makes me skeptical because I’ve read enough psychology articles to know people rarely like be the outlier on a trend, lest they get attacked by the heard.  And we know this because the disgusting folks over at the nation of Standom are notorious for sending death threats to critics among other things.  So instead of being honest, I find many critics these days, especially younger critics who have not yet hardened their shells, follow the person holding the conch shell to stay alive.  And so I stay out of it and let time pass and then if I feel the need, I go back and I revisit the work to see if the hype matches my feelings.

And so there I was getting all dressed up in eye rolls ready to join the anti-hype parade when stopped myself- Do you really have time for this?  More importantly, how big is your lawn getting? 

In full disclosure, I have no lawn even if I wanted people to get off it, I live in a studio apartment.

Also in full disclosure my favorite Taylor Swift song is “Style”.

That is about as far as I’ve gotten in my enjoyment of whatever current calculated costume she is in.  But make NO MISTAKE at the queer clubs if she came on, I danced in full splendor with the passion I always do out respect for the traditions of queers losing it to catchy songs by divas.  I mean why else is one at the dance club?

So if it is not clear I am neither here nor their on Swift’s music other than it is overplayed like any popular hit and sounds like many other popular hits, so I will tend to not get too worked up.  Besides let’s get real, Swift had help on this one, LOTS of help.  And I know that without even having heard it because the other omnipresent name at the time of the album’s release was Jack Antonoff, who has produced a few recent releases by women to great acclaim.

Once I was having a discussion on how Michael Jackson’s Thriller should’ve been called Toto’s Thriller featuring Michael Jackson… and my and conversation partner and I went down a rabbit hole on how studio musicians, producers, songwriters, don’t get nearly enough credit in the public dialogue for all the hits they produce.  Long story short, it ended with a fellow music nerd remarking to me that Taylor Swift’s music is “not for me”. I am not her audience so it is not surprising I don’t connect to it.  To which I thought at first, the best music is for everybody and then, if it is not for me, who is it for?

But more importantly, I had just yesterday been fawning over The Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together” from 1969 – a song that came out 5 years before I came into the world and started bothering all the nice people.  And well before I ever registered a liking of music with any real fervor.  So that was not, “for me” either.  But what a great song, and what fantastic production.  Those iconic strings in the song’s intro that Janet Jackson sampled for her hit, “If” are perfect musical heartbeat metaphors. Oh, how I do enjoy The Supremes and all the studio wizards that helped them create some amazing singles.  Maybe not my favorites but they sure pressed some good wax in their day.

The point being, I had to sit myself down and do a pre-game pep talk for this review.  I have been meh- on Swift’s music previously and you add to that my general malaise around most of the sonic sounds the mainstream has been shoveling as a mono-genre for the past 8-10 years- excuse me one second…

Nope, still no lawn.

Also, I don’t want to be the type of music douche to quote a t-shirt, “I only listen to bands that don’t exist yet”.  It won’t work for what I do with my music show.  Preservation of the past is a huge part of my show but nostalgia is not the main focus, it is how can I expose people to this great music in our history; the forgotten innovators and trailblazers and educate them on why it matters while also tying it to the present.

And so I have decided to go face to face with the hype of the year and review Taylor Swift’s latest album.  It seems like the entire internet has written about it and sworn by it all in a matter of days at the time of this writing.  And judging by the stars and scores of flawed social media metrics that are as unreliable as Billboard chart rankings these days.  Is it the best album of the year.  Ha!  That requires listening to every album released this year.  Who has time for that?

On the flip side… no bullshit here- sometimes an album is that good. Nobody seeks to put out pure dreck.   And you hope as time goes on, an artist matures and grows up and stops caring what the public thinks or weather the next crop of teens will care about them, and starts creating and writing about stories authentic to them.  So I refrained from reading reviews so I could make up my own mind.

Right off the bat and out of the gate, I will tell you 16 songs is probably too many, yes I am aware most of her albums are bloated.  For the completist, it is actually 17 songs because she put one more song on the vinyl, CD, and cassette in 8 different covers, so bring your dollars.  And that right there is an example of not curating your songs.  My first brush with a bloated album came in the 90s when Shania Twain released Come On Over. a 16 song album that would’ve shined much better with 9 or 10 of the absolute bangers.  And the follow up album had NINETEEN!  Remember, I have a sandwich waiting so just get to the point and get out, like Tapestry or Faith, or Jagged Little Pill.

If the additional song belongs on the album because it speaks to the larger whole as a piece, then why is it not on the digital album?  Duh!  Because it will help sell more physical copies!  Also the more songs on an album, the more streams you will get on Spotify, which also means more dollars in the bank and possibly more hits on the charts.  We all remember the aftermath of Drake’s album Stories.  When an artist bloats an album these days, it says to me they are leading with the priority of making cash over delivering content.  And that is fine. I just wish more artists stopped acting like every song is perfection that the world needed to hear. Or feigned the kind pretension Zappa had been warning about in the 60s and 70s.  Nowadays, when you get a special edition of a classic album, it comes with all these bonus tracks and demos and such. Those songs were left on the cutting room floor for a reason.  Sometimes it was because there was no space on the physical medium, but more likely it was because it just didn’t fit or work with the album and the narrative the artist was trying to tell. It is a nice curio for fans but I have found it has never made the original album any better.  Not once.

Now artists don’t even wait for a special edition. They release every last song they dreamed up in a writing session.  Nobody is culling the heard.  Song selection used to part of the art form people had to master because the physical medium of records forced you to “kill your darlings”.  Even a double record like Exile on Main Street or Sign ‘O’ The Times was carefully curated.  Fun Fact: Prince originally wanted Sign ‘O’ The Times to be three LPs.  But record labels refused and personally I think we are better for it.  Even Prince sometimes needed to be reigned in. Yes, even Prince.

Enough stalling let’s get this review proper.

Right out of the gate I enjoy the piano.  Piano good.  Though it should be noted Swift did not play piano on any of these tracks, not sure why that is since that is one of her major selling points when it comes to artistic cred.  The backing instrumentation though is cliched and a dime a dozen these days.  But all is quickly usurped by these lyrics:

I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit

Been saying “yes” instead of “no”

 “On some new shit”… Some new drugs? Medication? I don’t know but now I have to side tangent for a second.  99.999% of the time swearing is completely misused, out of place, and a bad choice in lyrics or poetry.  Was Swift looking for that seal of approval known as the, “parental advisory sticker”?  More importantly, the speaker in the song is supposedly somebody looking back on their twenties:

But we were something, don’t you think so?
Roaring twenties, tossing pennies in the pool

And yet, the speaker of the song is using the language of a teenage rapper.  When Alanis sang “thinking about me when you fuck her” it meant something real.  This just feels like “Let’s see if anybody notices, me, Taylor Swift swearing in a song”.  It is totally immature and wrong for the story the song is trying to tell.  Grrr…. I tried. I tried but one lyric in…  Anyway continue, Ms. Swift.

I have this dream you’re doing cool shit
Having adventures on your own

 Now it’s happened twice.  And it sticks out and sounds juvenile even more the second time. The first line of that couplet sounds like somebody in high school and second line sounds like somebody much more thoughtful and mature.  Now I have to ponder who her intended audience is going forward. And honestly I am trying to listen to the album in one gone here and not get into the weeds yet but swearing almost always takes me out of a song, except in hip-hop where the barrage is so constant and clichéd, you don’t even notice. Still, I enjoy the piano – it has a nice bobbing melody the way memories sort of float around in our minds.

First thoughts on the second track, “Cardigan” are, What happened to her vocals?  The first song you could clearly understand the lyrics now they are muddle behind the piano and production… (sigh).

OK-  Going song by song is going to be trying as the poet in me nitpicks everything to death so let’s do some chores around the house and crank this sucker.

“The Last Great American Dynasty” has musical themes reminiscent of Dire Straits from the Making Movies era and some parts of Brothers In Arms. But so far, there seems to be a lack of conviction in the production. It is just sort of there, neither a bother nor a hindrance.

The duet “Exile” sounds like the kind of song used in film previews for romantic dramas.  The piano is starting to sound the same after four songs in.  The album does not have a unique voice from one song to the next, nor does Swift’s vocal delivery.  And while singing is not her strong suit and she knows it, she should practice phrasing her words in more emotional ways to compensate, like Glynis Johns singing “Send In The Clowns.”  OK, a few more songs have come and gone. “My Tear Ricochet” comes off as the best of the bunch but I can’t say why yet.  And when the next song rolls up I’m sure I’ll forget anything about it.

I am officially eight songs in before I really perk up.  “August” brings to mind the likes of Paula Cole, Jewel and other 90s alternative females even if her voice is not as strong.  Also this is first song on the album where I felt myself wanting to hum along.  It’s catchy.  Yes, even alternative and more contemplative albums need catchy songs and memorable hooks.  The peak 70s singer songwriter era was loaded with them…. I mean who doesn’t know the hook of, “You’re So Vain”?

Side note: when was the last time you heard the word “gavotte” used in a song?

Anyway this song is definitely a stand out. Still, while the song is catchy, it presents again, one of Folklore’s constant battles that becomes a handicap to the album as a whole.

Salt air
And the rust on your door
I never needed anything more
Whispers
Of “Are you sure?”
“Never have I ever before”

But I can see us
Lost in the memory
August slipped away into a moment in time
‘Cause it was never mine
And I can see us twisted in bedsheets
August sipped away
Like a bottle of wine
‘Cause you were never mine

The first verse here and the chorus sound like they are written by two entirely different people.  The Chorus has some meat to it lyrically while the verse is a little cloying and cutesy with rhymes and also not as direct as the chorus, which shows us exactly what we need to know about the lover that the speaker of song could not hold onto.

“This Is Me Trying”, I liked it.  This is one of the best songs on the album.  But it still feels like two different songwriters and styles trying to force the song to work.  Hopefully, her songwriting stays more cohesive as the album goes on.

I still wish mainstream producers today would stop fussing with the vocals in post production.  Just leave them be and let the artist sing it straight and clear.  Because it almost always leads the lyrics being drowned out and on supposedly introspective albums like these the lyrics should be front and center.  But hell – even the greatest pop records, “Straight Up,” for example, you understood everything Paula Abdul was singing, speaking of not being able to sing. It also comes off as insecurity about the vocals and her singing voice in general.  Again, I know that is not her strong suit but again take a tip from the 70s women Rosemary Clooney in her 70s, when you don’t have the pipes, practice phrasing as way to sell the song.

“Illicit Affairs”… the voice is lost, lyrics lost in the production.  Boooooooo! And she has something specific she is CLEARLY trying to say. And while at times it apes other ethereal voices like Elizabeth Frazer and her non lyrics iconic to the Cocteau Twins sound, it doesn’t jive with the lyrics, which is what this whole surprise album is about – Taylor Swift maturing and getting introspective.  I’m mean, the album is called Folklore, clearly there are stories she wants to tell.

“Invisible Strings” has the weakest vocals.  And one may say that’s what liner notes are for.  Or, use Google to look up the lyrics dummy.  Well, let me remind you about that sandwich I’ve got waiting for me.

“Mad Woman” is another very strong track that feels like one voice wrote it.  Maybe the best one on the album.  AND an example of when swearing works.

What do you sing on your drive home?
Do you see my face in the neighbor’s lawn?
Does she smile?
Or does she mouth, “Fuck you forever”?

Even just reading it you can tell the swearing has purpose here.  It doesn’t stand out as juvenile or pandering.  It doesn’t come off like somebody coyly waiting to see if anyone notices that you just swore. One critique here though is the lyrics shift from 1st person to 3rd person, should’ve stayed 1st person, in the head on the “Mad Woman”. Still a choice cut.

Now, I know that the song is in part based on a real woman, but also it recalls to my mind one literature’s most famous “mad women”, Miss Havisham.  Intentional or otherwise this one is a keeper.   Won’t play well as a single because this is not the 90s and she is not Tori Amos but in the future this will be one they will dig up for nostalgia rock radio.

However, this song does have one very nagging problem and that is the context in which it and the album as a whole, was released.  This album was written and produced while the world in more or less in lock down.  Most people, even most musicians can barely make rent, let alone rent a studio to cut a surprise album.  And here is Swift writing a song in her mansion about her other mansion.  Artists do not have to comment on current events in their music if they do not wish and to be fair, when Swift has spoken up in the past, she has been blasted for it.  But I repeat this is one of the strongest tracks on the album despite my side tangent.

I have seen some random comments about this album in my feed referencing Joni Mitchell who was 30 when she dropped Court & Spark onto the world the same age as Swift is now.  But I hear more Kate Bush in phrasing and execution especially on the opening of songs like “Epiphany”.  But that’s not Swift, so much as her producers and studio musicians pushing that sound.  And maybe they were trying to go for the dreamy pop sensibility that Lana Del Ray has been doing, but all that winds its roots back to Kate Bush and songs like “This Woman’s Work”.  In fact, thinking about that more, the comparisons to Lana are actually quite off because they ignore Lana (or her producers) looking back to Kate Bush, Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, and Imogen Heap as well. Nobody creates music in a time devoid of history.

Now, we arrive at “Betty”, what I am calling the sore thumb of the record.  It should’ve been cut or at least reworked in post.  The harmonica is totally out of place on an album that tries so hard to stay in one sonic lane to not offend anyone.  It immediately calls to mind Bob Dylan and not in a good way.  It’s an odd mix of folk sounds with the wispy pop piano that fills the rest of the album.  But here at least the lyrics can be understood as they are not drowned out.  Somebody was checking the levels on this one.  That said, there was no hook that really stuck with me just that cloying harmonica.  If it had stayed in one lane or had just been released as a stand alone folk tune (no synth piano) I think it would’ve been better.  And I can hear the cries, “Clearly it went over your head.  It references a cardigan going back to the second song.  Hello, a song cycle?”

I quote Stephen King, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”  Lyrically though it does call to mind the tone and lyricism of Mary Chapin Carpenter or even Shawn Colvin that A+ there.

But speaking of staying in one lane while the rest of the album does all have the same feel, its lends the album to feeling like the producers and Swift herself were afraid to commit to sound that you would remember as the sound of  Folklore.  All the other albums I’ve mention feel cohesive, but all committed to their sound in a way that makes them enduring and timeless.  Here it all ends up sounding very, “Meh…” much of the time.  Again this could’ve been helped with some song pruning; it certainly would’ve helped the stand-out tracks stand out in a better light.  And hell, it might’ve made the Harmonica on “Betty” less cloying and obtrusive.

The last two songs are entirely forgettable.  And if they were not, I assure I would have had something to say about them.

I have listened once and now I must go in for round 2. But first impressions are the album is innocuous.  The opening swears still linger as childish and immature.  A few songs sounded memorable at the time of listening but none of them really had a hook that stuck with me except “August”.

“Mad Woman” was my favorite song in terms of content and “This Is Me Trying” sounded the most overtly authentic and honest.  “My Tears Ricochet” is also another stand-out track.  Oh, and the annoying harmonica on “Betty” just had me singing, Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold” in my head. That really was a misstep in my opinion.  So the album is neither good nor bad, it just is.  It doesn’t overstay its welcome because it almost feels like it was never there to begin with.  Also still feels like Swift is playing it safe or somebody is reining her in.

But maybe in the pantheon of Taylor Swift records, it is great.  Still, for somebody hailed as the songwriter of her generation, I expected more, especially at 30.  Now at the top, I said 16 songs is too many because albums get bloated, but in this case I was wrong.  It doesn’t sound bloated because it all sounds the same (harmonica not withstanding).  The other thing that always sticks with me when I hear a Swift song is how much better it would be if somebody else with stronger pipes and more conviction sang them.  She has a real hard time selling me emotionally.  Some of the greatest songwriters like Cole Porter and Diane Warren knew they could not sell their songs if they sang them, so they passed them on to people who could deliver them with some gusto.  But you don’t conquer the pop media landscape behind the scenes.

It is almost time for a 2nd listen but first– A palette cleanser, Joni Mitchell’s Court & Spark.  Back in a moment.

The 1970 Court & Spark album sounds so clean but not polished and manicured.  Joni’s voice is unmistakable.  A fun bit of side trivia I just learned for you music theory nerds- over the 11 songs she employs 6 different keys A, D, G, E, C, G.  OK, break time is over.

My second listen is complete.

I solved the mystery of the lack of one singular songwriter voice, Jack Antonoff co-wrote all but one song with her.  So I think their songwriting styles often clash.  When he gets out her way, the songs sound more cohesive.  Assuming it is not her getting out of his way. I’ll have more on Antonoff later.

Artists seek out certain producers because they want a certain sound, and sometimes that works like gangbusters other times it is a mismatch but usually one just ends up sounding of the moment.  Like when Michael Jackson dropped Quincy Jones for Teddy Riley on Dangerous.  Great tracks but ultimately it sound less like Michael Jackson and more like an of-the-moment new jack swing record, a sound that that ironically his sister Janet helped propel into the mainstream with Control.  Swift’s 1989 sounds like a Max Martin record because she sought out Max Martin.  And here she sounds like Lana Del Rey and the The National because she chose to work with people who create that sound.

And yet the team manages in places to rise above “the sonic moment” and throwback to sounds like 90s Lilith Fair.  “Mad Woman” sounds like Swift taking a cue from the Tori Amos cast book and is one of the stand-out tracks.  Though not really gonna be seen as radio friendly.  And on second listen still one of the strongest tracks but the best in my opinion is “This Is Me Trying” it may be listed as having co-writes but that sound ALL Taylor Swift to me.  It may be about lovers but it is clearly her pleading to the public she is trying to do the best she can musical with what she is capable of.  In fact, the self-awareness in that song of her own limits is the kind of authenticity I wish the album had more of.  Because as it stands, the album is too self-aware of the moment it is in and the one it wants to create and conquer.  The problem with being in the moment is one doesn’t really transcend it.  Only time will tell on that though.  Get back to me in 30 years.

Oh wait- let’s back up to key signatures for moment there are some 11 plus key signatures employed over 16 tracks here, Swift only sings on these tracks so she is not playing any instruments but I just wanted to mention that in case anyone thought I was dropping fun facts about Joni Mitchell as a jab at Swift.

I was REALLY trying my best not to bring Joni Mitchell into this but as I said, Court and Spark is a very clean sounding album top to bottom but it does not sound polished and buffed to perfection.   The voice is front and center even when more heavy layers are added.  On Folklore the production often sounds like it is afraid to put Swifts lyrics and voice up front opting instead to create an aduio version of the Vaseline filter that nor brings to mind how much this record IS NOT like Cocteau Twins.  The Cocteau Twins really had layers and ebbs and flows among all that drifting into space sound and Frazers voice was never in the background.  Folklore is like being stuck in the middle of a lake with no wind in the sails.  The songs feel shorter than their average 3:50 running time because most ultimately go nowhere fast so nothing really sticks with you or builds.  And again with the lyrics crowded out by often heavy handed synth and piano I can’t attach myself to the stories.

And then there is that harmonica…  I mentioned it before but man is it out place here on my second run through, similar to how the jazz song “Twisted” feels out of place on Court & Spark and funny enough is the one song Joni did not pen herself on that record.   But the harmonica is not just out of place, but annoying like the song is trying to be something it isn’t.  I don’t know if this was an attempt to throwback to her more country-pop roots but it doesn’t fit.

“This Is Me Trying” kind of sums it up I guess. Swift is trying to write a more mature album, she is trying to reckon with how to mature lyrically as an artist in a realm where age kills more careers than any album good or bad ever will.  Your fans grow up and become preoccupied with work, rent, or kids and can’t hang on your every social media post.  And the potential new young fans have likely found their new savior.  And you find yourself no longer the center of attention.  In the age of the internet this is happening faster and faster as people move on from one thing to the next.

Folklore is a great effort with it’s moments but still has that strong Taylor Swift vibe of total calculation for maximum sales and media dominance more than trying to really create a raw album with an authentic voice.  On the surface it may feel relaxed but behind the scenes it is anything but.  But who knows maybe the follow up will lean further into this kind of song craft and growth.  Just learn to “kill your darlings” Swift and leave them wanting more.

Now I must address Antnoff, frankly his name should go on the album cover as well since he co-wrote all but “My Tears Ricochet”.    So I don’t know how much she actually wrote and what she wrote.  I ultimately cannot review this album, as others have, like she wrote it all herself.  It would not be fair to Antonoff, Dessener and others who played who knows how much of role in these lyrics.  Since Red she has written very few songs alone.   And I argue she is worse off for it, especially because her writing partners have all been male thus interjecting male notions of her female experience.  Remember, most of the famous female anthems were written by men or teams of men.

Just because Antonoff had success with other women doesn’t mean he’s a good match here.  It’s hard to say who should get the credit or fault here because before Red she was so young that those songs sound age appropriate and slightly juvenile.  But Swift has a strong female lyrical voice, that I argue doesn’t need help and much of the co-writing here and on previous records clashes with that authenticity in favor of hipness and clamoring for attention.  Also with Antonoff delivering critical successes for Lana Del Rey on Norman Fucking Rockwell and Lorde on Melodrama you have to wonder… Who should get most of the credit on any of these albums?

To be fair writing mainstream pop juggernauts these days is a different animal than penning personal solo singer-songwriter type songs like Joni Mitchell or Suzanne Vega.  It actually has more in common with the Brill Building of the 50s/60s than anything of the 1980s I see referenced so often.  So if you want hits in the streaming era you go with folks who have track record for and writing and producing them.   But as I noted there are songs where you clearly hear two different songwriting voices clashing.  But I’ll bestow the benefit of the doubt here considering her songwriting history and say she penned the majority of the lyrics. But in the future I would like to see her give herself a chance to write more adult material alone and also get a female producer, maybe Brandi Carlisle who did Tanya Tuckers last record.  Because it doesn’t matter who Swift works with she know it will sell so sell something a little more risky and daring.

Now often times I will wait a few days and do a 3rd listen- but you know what? I don’t fee like it. I personally would rather eat a cheese sandwich and blast some music I know I enjoy.  So I shall instead end with a short letter.

Dear Ms. Swift,

I hope that on your next record you let your insecurities and fears come up front, raw and naked stripped down to the bare essentials of production. Tap into that darkness, fear, joy, love, sadness, anger and just let it rip like any of the aforementioned females I’ve named dropped in this article.  When that happens, I expect you will deliver a strong, cohesive, and concise album with a very personal and authentic point of view.  And you know what I’d love it because the strong songwriting here is STRONG and I’m not talking in comparison to your peers, I’m talking on par with the 90s Lilith crew or even better the 60s Laurel Canyon crew.  You just need to find a producer that knows how to let the lyrics take center stage without the gimmicks and studio cliches of the era.  It’s a risk you can afford because people will by the album no matter what.  Also, you need to ditch the writing partners they get in your way too much.  I want a Swift record not a Swift-Antonoff record.  And lastly, you need to ask that driven taskmaster businesswoman ego of yours that is always overly concerned with being relevant and maintaining some impossible public image to take a LONG vacation.  Just sit at a piano; get ugly, get dirty, don’t change that cardigan for a few days.  Just let everything grow, wild, fearless and bleed red.

 

Peace, Love, Happiness, Music, Dancing,
Bear

 

Tasty Tracks:

This Is Me Trying

Mad Woman

August

My Tears Ricochet

 

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