Taylor Swift’s folklore recycles the myth of the isolationist album
Springsteen, Bon Iver and Justin Timberlake are among those who’ve escaped to the wilderness to grow a beard and wrestle with their soul. Swift’s surprise album captures a romanticised rural feeling without peddling a solitary genius narrative.
Eight albums into her career, Taylor Swift has finally made “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”. Produced by Aaron Dessner of The National, with orchestration from his twin brother Bryce, as well as an appearance by Bon Iver, it might seem unreasonable for Taylor Swift to make one of the world’s first 2007 period pieces. But in this time, in which we are all experiencing isolation, it makes a lot of sense for Swift to honour a tradition of romanticised, self-imposed solitude.
Making art in isolation has most visibly been a man’s game. The first image that comes to mind is of Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century transcendentalist, who escaped to a cabin in the woods in order to “live deliberately”, and write what would become Walden. In music, we may think of the homemade bedroom studio Bruce Springsteen holed himself up in to write his stripped-back folk classic Nebraska. In a less convincing attempt at conveying rugged rural solitude, for promotional images for his 2008 album Man of the Woods, Justin Timberlake knelt in a field of horses with a mountainous backdrop.
But the ultimate album of isolation, at least in recent memory, is Bon Iver’s 2007 album For Emma Forever Ago. Recorded over a three-month period at his father’s hunting cabin in Wisconsin, Justin Vernon reportedly lived off beer, whisky and deer meat while writing a debut album which turned the middle of nowhere into an indie music scene. The album’s sheer popularity brought the Thoreauian narrative of seclusion back into focus, at a time when music blogs were championing Romanticist ideals of intimacy, authenticity, and the banjo-wielding indie-folk outfit The Decemberists.
So, now that artists are being forced to create under the conditions of isolation and seclusion, what other cultural referents are there to help make sense of this time than the tradition of folksy pastoralia; when men were too occupied and alone with their art to care about the crumbs in their beard or the smell of their musty cabin dick?
On folklore, Taylor Swift’s take on the tradition is to spectacularise it. She mobilises many of the generic conventions of the art-in-isolation genre (woodland ambience, songs from multiple perspectives, gently reverbed piano, performative intimacy, cardigans), while also openly betraying the isolationist ethos. The sheer fact this is a pop album by global superstar Taylor Swift, helped by a well publicised team of writers and producers (in the album announcement, Taylor referred to co-writer Jack Antonoff as “basically musical family at this point”), makes naked the fact that this is a collective exercise in creation, dispelling the lone genius myth that surrounds so many male songwriters.
Rather than burrowing into a cabin of her own, folklore is more like a Pinterest board of glamping pods illuminated by fairy lights. Part of the album’s genius is how it makes us fantasise about isolation while in isolation. Taylor wants us to imagine a generative and meaningful solitude – unhampered by fear and uncertainty – where we’re free to ruminate on failed affairs, and luxuriate in the graved sting of nostalgia. There are old, familiar-smelling cardigans here, and blankets that smell of bonfire. Nature is in suspension and the only life that exists is our own.
Under these aesthetic conditions, Taylor has never sounded more relaxed. For once, her phrasing is unstrained. Not a single lyric jars. Bon Iver sings actual, comprehensible words. The album is much more stripped-back than last year’s Lover and strikingly earthy in comparison to her 2017 electropop album Reputation, but Taylor’s made no attempt to ditch her crowd-pleasing pop sensibility. With folk-revivalist pastiche, Taylor has created an atmosphere of intimacy which makes us feel closer to her than ever before – and she didn’t even have to flee into the wilderness to achieve this. folklore makes it seem, to speak in memeable terms, as though Thoreau walked so that Taylor Swift could fly.