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Taylor Swift's Folklore Alt-Pop Twist Surprised Everyone But Herself

And everyone who's been paying attention throughout her career

By Carson Mlnarik

Taylor Swift is doing well, in case you haven’t heard. The pop singer declared she’s “on some new shit” on the opening track of her eighth album, Folklore, which dropped with a day’s notice on July 24 and swiftly became the top-selling album of 2020. Swift also became the first artist ever to debut at the top of both the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and the Billboard 200 albums chart — no small feat. That’s partly thanks to the sound of Folklore, an indie-folk record, and her first to be categorized on the Billboard charts and iTunes as “alternative,” that wears its genre on its cardigan sleeve. The 16 songs embody a departure in sound from last year’s big pop odyssey Lover, largely due to The National’s Aaron Dessner, who produced and co-wrote a majority of the album alongside Swift and Jack Antonoff.

Swift sounds different, but lyrically speaking, she is the same. She narrates “The Last Great American Dynasty,” a story about marvelously misunderstood women, but remains as tight-lipped as the track’s production when she weaves herself into the end. The self-referential quips she’s known for (“Bad was the blood of the song in the cab”) are veiled in a quaint bath of acoustics on “Invisible String.” And while tracks like “August” and “Mirrorball” evoke high-school dramatics down to their “highest heels,” she sings with newfound nostalgia and maturity accomplished by the songs’ understated sound.

While Swift’s always been a vocal fan of alternative music — her spirited lip sync of Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” for Apple Music is proof enough — her years ruling the pop and country charts did not afford many opportunities for her inner indie kid to shine through. As universally known for planting clues in releases as she is for composing heart-crushing bridges, Swift dropped Folklore without any hint, the unplanned result of the unique global circumstances it was created in. Although the record is unlike anything Swift has done before, especially since it was written and recorded in quarantine, it’s not the first time she’s let her alternative sensibilities shine through. In fact, if you’ve paid attention, she’s been laying the foundation throughout her career.

Though Folklore is in some ways a return to Swift’s folk roots, with the banjos and front porches of “Betty” echoing the “Our Song” days, Swift was already trying alternative songs on for size during her Fearless era in 2008. She transformed rock group Luna Halo’s drum-splitting “Untouchable” into an enchanting bonus track and covered alternative rock group Better Than Ezra’s “Breathless” for a telethon. Although she had the most-awarded country album ever, some of her first collaborations, like Boys Like Girls’s pop rock ballad “Two is Better Than One” and John Mayer’s “Half of My Heart,” eschewed the genre completely. Three years later, when “Mean” — a precursor to the self-assured brashness channeled on “Mad Woman” — was scoring her dual Grammy Awards in country categories, Swift busied herself by inviting folk singer Shawn Colvin and alt mainstays Switchfoot and Jimmy Eat World to perform on the Speak Now tour.

Upon Folklore’s release, “Safe & Sound,” Swift’s 2011 companion track to The Hunger Games, was referenced as its closest sonic sister. However her other soundtrack contribution, “Eyes Open”, a paranoid, 2000s Paramore-reminiscent banger, also highlights alternative rock as an influence within her wheelhouse. It was a mood she continued to evoke recording her “patchwork quilt” fourth record Red, working with Semisonic’s Dan Wilson on fan-favorite tracks “Come Back… Be Here” and “Treacherous,” which he reinterpreted for his own album. Swift snagged Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol and U2 producer Jacknife Lee for “The Last Time,” a duet perhaps unmatched in sheer crippling weight of despondency until Folklore’s “Exile.”

With 1989, she made a conscious decision to leave country, working with producers from pure pop pedigrees, though she specifically sought out the artsy and experimental Imogen Heap to produce the album’s sobering closer “Clean,” recalling the session as “one of the musical highlights of my life.” While the immediate success of “Shake It Off” solidified her glossy new sound, her BBC Radio 1 performance of the track was paired with a stripped-down cover of Vance Joy’s “Riptide,” its bare bones arrangement demonstrating to fans her potential to venture into more intimate, interior territory.

By 2019, Swift had moved from the trap-infused, snake-guarded Reputation to Lover’s pastel dream-pop butterflies. In this context, Folklore feels especially unanticipated, as both of her previous albums were characterized by public and sonic rebirths with plenty of advance rollout. Her skills in reinvention have even inspired others, like the conceptually acrobatic Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, who cut a dancefloor remix of “Slow Disco” after Swift suggested “a pop version” to mutual pal Antonoff. The connection seemingly led to the trio collaborating on Lover standout “Cruel Summer,” a synth-pop explosion that Clark co-wrote and played guitar on. While Swift’s reimagination of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” for Spotify Singles was not beloved by all, its dreamy banjo-speckled arrangement certainly reaffirmed her roots.

Trading in ad-libs for F-bombs and beat drops for strings, Folklore is a stylistic overhaul that could have been polarizing if it weren’t for the singer’s chameleonic abilities. On “Mirrorball,” its shimmering sixth track, the 30-year-old songwriter compares herself to a disco ball, showing “you every version of yourself.” Although she’s embraced “alternative” as her latest polish, her penchant for shining a light on universal feelings hasn’t changed. Swift noted in her album announcement that “if you make something you love, you should just put it out in the world.” After honing her alternative edge over 14 years of evolution, it’s no wonder we love it, too.