All hail Taylor Swift: Our most productive quarantiner, our most essential pop star, and the redeeming poet laureate of 2020’s malaise. The two albums she recorded and surprise-released during the pandemic represent not just a coherent body of work, but also her most seismic aesthetic disruption since the glitchy beats on “I Knew You Were Trouble” signaled her exodus from mainstream country. Working with well-credentialed indie rock collaborators, including members of Bon Iver and The National, Swift took advantage of her break from touring by making a pair of records that sound completely unencumbered by any need to be legible from the cheap seats of a stadium; instead, folklore and its sister album, evermore, lean into moodiness and melancholy, a sound that suits the undercurrent of grief and dislocation that ran through 2020. Evermore may be the looser and more adventurous of the two, but it’s folklore that best illustrates how much Swift has matured in her songcraft. That’s reflected not so much in her casual profanity, but in how she draws blood from clean, simple metaphors (“I knew you, leaving like a father, running like water”). It’s also evident in the airtight structures of these songs, which may lean into indie folk, minimalist electronica, and even dream pop, but at their core feel almost like standards in their meticulous assembly, well-paced verses, and exquisite bridges. (Cue the Tony Bennet versions!) There is immense pleasure in hearing Swift navigate new sounds with some of the most assured and restrained singing of her career, and indeed, the entire album benefits from the feeling that notorious people-pleaser Swift is newly unburdened: There are no sweaty attempts at a breakout single here, and no sense that she’s tied to her own metanarratives. Which is not to say that she has written herself out of the story completely; for as much as folklore has been celebrated for its third-person storytelling, Swift drops morsels of autobiography across the album like breadcrumbs, little moments of self-recognition (“I’ve never been a natural/ all I do is try, try, try”). Now, as ever, she is her own most compelling character.
Published as part of Top 25 Albums of 2020 — 10-1.