It's possible you've read some of the extremely positive reviews of Folklore, the latest Taylor Swift album. I think it's a masterpiece, really, but another review would be redundant. So I'll try a personal essay instead, sneaking in some description and assessment of the music along the way.
I probably would’ve never paid much attention to Taylor had I not been a parent, though as her songs bobbed up now and then I might have nodded in approval, noticing that they were consistently better than average country and then pop music of their period. But I was hanging out through Taylor's earlier career with my daughter Jane, a tween Taytay fanatic. And though at 20 Jane's gone through a number of phases in which she's seemed far too sophisticated and hip for Taylor Swift, she's never ceased to be obsessed.
The first time I remember hearing Taylor I was driving Janie home from her elementary school in the Pennsylvania hills circa 2008; we were listening to Disney Radio, which featured a lot of very annoying and banal music as well as some decent teenypop. But I got happier real quick to the tune of "Teardrops on My Guitar," which struck me as a charming and vivid piece of writing; it was a song about a girl in her bedroom writing a song about a boy; you couldn't not picture the whole situation. It sure sounded like the girl singing it wrote it. She did, of course, and she wrote it when she was 15. Soon we were both singing along to Taylor's eponymous debut album, which was a couple of years old by then. "Teardrops on My Guitar" is a cute and funny song for a nine-year-old girl to sing along with, and possibly Janie was trying on possible future personae, learning how to be a teenage girl as we listened.
Janie is the youngest of her half-siblings (it's complicated), and I tried over the years to affect the musical tastes of all of them. I think I lured Vincie and Sam toward reggae and underground hip-hop, for example, and Emma toward girlpunk like Bikini Kill. But I never had much success bringing any of these kids around to country, which is my favorite genre but is also the least cool thing my kids can imagine. So I saw Janie's enthusiasm for "Teardrops on My Guitar" as my shot at redemption. It worked, sort of (she's into Orville Peck, recently), though Taylor grew up and out of country music. Well, that's the goal of parenting, really: eventually the sylph flits free.
So maybe I wasn't going to get her from Taylor all the way to Emmylou. Over the years I split with Janie's mom and we moved further away from each other. Janie and I ended up onlong car drives back and forth between rural PA and Baltimore every weekend and drenched these journeys in Taylor for years on end, screaming along with the lyrics, kvelling about the astonishing songcraft, crying together due to the "emotions" (for example, on "Never Grow Up"). We anxiously awaited each new album; for years (for me, up through Red in 2012 or maybe 1989 three years later) each was even better than the previous. Pretty soon, Taylor Swift was central to our relationship; she had helped tell the story of Janie's childhood and been the soundtrack of our history. We went and saw her at Nationals Park in DC on the 1989 tour; Janie's mom was there too, and Lorde. We all got along great. Even as a lifelong music obsessive, I've never had a similarly immersive experience of a single artist over such a long period. I've spent more time listening to Taylor Swift than any other artist, an unlikely fate for an aging rock critic.
The texts I exchanged with Janie last week could have been from 2012; the new album has us both regressing.
J: New TS album tonight!
C: i will listen! we need to drive somewhere together and learn it!
J: Most definitely!!! I have a good feeling about this album.
Then on Friday:
C: oh it is so good! it's all back to personal connection with the voice. do you mind if i write a column about you me and taylor?
J: Not at all!! I love this album!!
C: a masterpiece maybe!
J: Soooooo gooood I've been crying to Cardigan it's amazinggg.
It’s really a fine album. Slower and more contemplative in tone than her recent big pop work, it's much more personal, more Taylored in its performance style. Closer to the heart. Better. Taylor is one of the best lyricists pop music has produced, and the first cut on the album, "The 1," is a quietly typical Taylor construction: it flirts with clichés, then turns them around and inside out, and returns and affirms them. Along the way, she gives you some typically nice turns of phrase: "In my defense I have none," "The greatest films of all time were never made."
It's the great craft in melody, and in story and character construction in relation to melody, that makes Taylor's songs excellent and opens the possibility of intense responses, which have turned out to be very sustainable over time. All the work from each phase stands up. The young Taylor wrote some songs that were gem-like in their perfection, both lyrically and melodically. From early on, for example, she has had an amazing way with a bridge, which she uses also to introduce emotional developments or narrative reversals. Songs like "You Belong With Me," "Better Than Revenge," or "Sparks Fly," for example: flawless little popular music machines.
It's too easy to interpret everything as flatly autobiographical, but Taylor was always doing all sorts of things. "Love Story," for example, doesn’t purport to be a true story of high school romance; it's about characters in a myth or folk tale or a work of fiction; it comes out of her English class more than her actual romantic experience. Here, on "The Last Great American Dynasty," the story of a problematic former resident of Taylor's own mansion in Connecticut, she shows that she can accomplish full-scale novelistic and historical constructions in addition to the apparent memoir and auto-fiction.
On the other hand, it was always fun and complex to try to work out what was Taylor and what was a character (even the paradigmatic American high-school girl was partly a construction), and at times she writes in full persona with a mastery that recalls John Prine, as on the song "Mean" from the album Red, where she’s convincing in the character of an abused boy, or "Starlight," which starts out "I'm a Barbie on the boardwalk, summer of '45." (That voice is made of starlight.) I think everyone's fascination with her celebrity and her love life and what they could learn factually about her from her songs obscured their artistry.
I worried about Taylor as the years went by and various child stars of Janie's era (Demi Lovato, for example, or Justin Bieber) descended into various fairly predictable difficulties. Perhaps I displaced a bit of my anxiety about my daughters, growing up in a difficult world, onto Taylor. Anyway, I don't think any decent parent would want what happened to Taylor to happen to their kid: living in a bizarre bubble of total fame, everyone seemingly either a sycophant or an enemy. If it all went full Judy Garland and resulted in an artistic fade and struggles with addiction or mental illness, that wouldn’t be surprising.
But even in the phase where she was hanging with supermodels all day and dating movie stars, Taylor kept a pretty tight focus on the music; she hasn't had an artistic decline so far. She's managed to deflect the surreal fameworld she occupies by feeding it into the lyrics, which have continued to be in part autobiographical even as she went from self-declared high school geek to world-bestriding elfin colossus. Still, I think she's not best-served as an artist by the production style on songs like "New Romantics" (from 1989) or "This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things" (Reputation). That's when she goes from being Taylor Swift to being Sailor Twift, leader of the Sailor Scouts.
A lot of the vituperation that she has endured over the years rests, I think, on the way she looks: very white-feminine-normative or (looking at it in the most prejudicial way possible), very Aryan princess. But I don't think we can reasonably hold that against her. I hope I'd have the same response to her songs if she looked otherwise; you've got to take your geniuses as you find them, and she seems like a good person overall for someone in her terrifying wild-ass situation.
But I think that one reason she left country behind was to hide: behind co-writers and producers among other things. Really, those first few albums are extremely vulnerable, as if you're reading the diary of a teenage girl who’s typical except in her writing ability. The listener's connection to the voice on the early albums feels immediate; there are no hints of vocal effects, just that shimmering angelic soprano, close up to the mic, apparently whispering her secrets. The bigger the pop production got, and the more processed the voice, the more Taylor receded into her secret lair somewhere. There were always personal threads and people were always picking them out, but she didn't seem present inside the songs in the same way. Well, the big pop records (1989, and especially Reputation and Lover) were well-made examples of their genre, and I'd have been hiding too. And I've lost the thread a bit since Janie got her license.
Maybe isolation has made Taylor yearn for a return to connection and vulnerability. It's had that effect on a lot of us. Actually being sequestered makes self-revelation feel both safer and more urgent. Folklore comes, apparently, right from that inner lair. There are many subtle pop touches, but the singularity of the voice, a voice now as familiar as anyone's on the planet, comes through over and over again. And she finds ways back to her themes of childhood and adolescence in a way that is, for me, heart-rendingly nostalgic on multiple levels. This time around, every scrap of memory is bathed in melancholy, a yearning for something truly unrecoverable, given where Taylor, and Janie, and me, now are. In Swiftian fashion she recalls a childhood friend on "Seven":
Please picture me in the trees
I hit my peak at seven
Feet in the swing over the creek
I was too scared to jump in
But I, I was high in the sky
With Pennsylvania under me
Are there still beautiful things?
As well as "Seven," of course, Taylor has explored "Fifteen" and "22." The oeuvre as a whole should be considered an autobiography now, or a work of autobiographical fiction, and its primary theme is seeking connections to the past. And that's the subject of Folklore: the invisible string (what a lovely song) tying us to people we loved long ago, or the idea that relationships change or end, and kids grow up, but that somehow love remains.
Though I believe Taylor's melancholy, she's just not going to be able convey Lana Del Rey sadness no matter what happens. I've already described her voice as "shimmering" and "angelic": there's just no despair in it, and even Taylor's sadness is transfigured into an element in her almost-involuntary expression of joy. "No other sadness in the world will do," she sings on "Hoax," but that makes cherishing a particular sadness an element of a possible happiness. It makes you (well, me anyway) feel good to hear Taylor Swift, almost no matter what she's singing, and to hear her voice again right now at less distance and with less distraction has redoubled the effect. But would a touch of mandolin or a live snare kill you, sweetie?
Meanwhile, I'm a bit melancholy myself. I've seen Janie only a couple of times since the isolation began, and texting is a poor substitute for a road trip. Soon, baby!
Less-heard great Taylor Swift songs from the first five albums (assembled in consultation with Jane Sartwell):
"Mary's Song" (Taylor Swift)
"Picture to Burn" (Taylor Swift)
"Hey Stephen" (Fearless)
"Last Kiss" (Speak Now)
"Sparks Fly" (Speak Now)
"Better Than Revenge" (Speak Now)
"Sad, Beautiful, Tragic" (Red)
"I Almost Do" (Red)
"I Know Places" (1989)
"This Love" (1989)
—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell