I am not a music critic, nor am I educated in the science of making music. I am just a guy who likes popular music. The genius of Taylor Swift is in putting words to intense feelings and experiences, even if other people think those feelings and experiences are silly or insignificant. I guess the knock on her was that she always wrote songs about romantic relationships, but listen, my friends: we wouldn’t even have popular music of any sort, if we didn’t have romantic relationships.
I have reviewed a Taylor Swift album before in these pages. Some years ago, I reviewed her Speak Now LP. To my mind, that record was her best work. Until now, that is.
I have to say that I have been a fan of hers from the very beginning. I grabbed this album as soon as it was available on Spotify and also eagerly watched the documentary film about the making of the record, and the performance of it, in a home studio in upstate New York. (That documentary, “Folklore: the Long Pond Studio Sessions,” is streaming on Disney+.)
You may know that she shed her country roots some years ago with the release of the “1989” LP. Ironically, I don’t like that record much, but it made her a megastar. With Megastardom came freedom to make whatever she wants. If Taylor Swift wants to do an indie record, we’re getting an indie record. Or two: she also gave us “evermore” at the end of last year.
There are some sneaky piano chords at the very beginning of the record, to begin the first song, “the 1,” and once they put the little beat in there, I’m in. I’ll be going where she wants to go. She knows how to grab our attention, because the first lyrics are, “I’m doing good, I’m on some new s***/been saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’” It is a conversation with an old lover about what might have been, but it’s not wistful in a cloying way.
The track, “cardigan” is a standout, worthy of a Grammy nomination. But the odd thing about this record is that while there are parts of songs that grab you in a special way, to make you remember them, and to feel what she wants you to feel, it doesn’t feel like this album was a conscious effort to be iconic. Taylor started writing while in quarantine, and this quaint, homey thing is what we got. It’s the very opposite of grandiose, but when you hear it — when I hear it — I think, “These stories matter a great deal to me, even if they’re not mine, or, at least, not entirely.”
She says a funny thing in the documentary, when talking with her co-creators: she says she felt liberated from the method of essentially narrating her own life in song. I think she does even better than usual, because she committed herself to at least in part telling other people’s stories instead of her own.
I don’t want to comment on every track, but “cardigan,” “betty” and “august” are about the same three people. My favorite there is “august,” because it tells a relatable story of an aborted love, which, of course, leaves intense feelings in its wake, and musically, it ends with a guitar part that is more than slightly reminiscent of “Wichita County Lineman” by Glen Campbell. You never hurt yourself by giving the audience a memory of that great song, and of the performer who made it famous.
I could literally recommend every track on this album, for some reason or another. You know an album has captured you, when you sing along to every word.
Swift made this record with Aaron Dessner, of The National, and her longtime collaborator and co-producer Jack Antonoff. There is also a collaboration with Bon Iver, whom I was not familiar with before I heard him on this record. I don’t know anything about the indie genre, really, but if it sounds like this record, there will be a lot of things for me to enjoy.
I guess Taylor Swift can do whatever she wants; she’s named after James Taylor, after all. But if you’re asking me, she’s found her niche, her sweet spot. On the other hand, nobody who wins Album of the Year for the third time before she turns 32 can be correctly described as “niche.”
I was talking with our esteemed editor-in-chief as usual, and he said in fact that he saw someone say that this record may be comparable to Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. At this moment, I might not be able to disagree. In the end, Taylor Swift has topped herself, and considering her past success, this is astonishing.
There is no accounting for taste, but I don’t see how anyone could even remotely dislike this record.
Jason Kettinger is Associate Editor of Open for Business. He writes on politics, sports, faith and more.