Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Album Review: Taylor Swift's Folklore—cool songwriting experiments, but overusing tricks


People who (still) read this blog know that I can't NOT review a new Taylor Swift album (though my review of 2017's Reputation was just done in a "best pop songs of 2017" post); this includes the surprise release of Folklore in late July. As she did with Red, Taylor cultivated new sounds by inviting new collaborators, this time The National's Aaron Dessner and others. She is also more explicitly songwriting the stories of other people (though she has actually been doing that for a long time). 

Like many of the glowing reviews I've read, I agree this is not a bad album; the production and arrangements keep interest, like the subtle, string-like effects on "Cardigan." The songwriting is often complex: verses made of up many chained subphrases that build over time, like in "Mad Woman" and "Epiphany," and return sometimes unpredictably; in the layered duet in the last half of "Exile" with Bon Iver, the melodies accentuates important words; "Mirrorball" has a verse and chorus that both sound like choruses. There is some great lyric writing ("My Tears Ricochet" about her split with her label, Big Machine records) and nice turns of phrase (like "I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere" in "This is Me Trying.")

On the other hand, after listening a few times, I am not sure that any of these songs are going to jump back into my head like many of Swift's other songs (I just had a "Cruel Summer" from 2019's Lover stuck in my head this week). At 16 tracks, this is a long album, and some of the songs seem a little longer than they need to be, maybe a little more contemplative than I prefer.

Songwriting staples, connecting but more blandly than necessary

While Swift is still using “devils roll the dice” motif that plagued Lover and Reputation, at least the motif is not used quite as prominently or often. The most obvious use is in "Peace," where it was employed almost exactly as in previous Swift songs. The motif occurs repeatedly in the chorus of "Cardigan," mostly in its downward form. It is also in the pre-chorus of "Mad Woman." 

But Swift has a new songwriting strategy that would, again, be fine if she used sparingly, but instead she uses it over and over on Folklore. Her chained subphrase strategy of writing (mentioned earlier) often puts these long phrase structures over the same repeated chord patterns, sometimes even into the chorus—this leads to choruses that don't arrive as forcefully, and songs seeming longer and less varied than they might be. Songs on Folklore that fit this pattern: "The 1," "Cardigan," "Mirrorball," "Seven," "August," "Peace," and "Hoax"—that's almost half the album using this songwriting strategy. The production tries to obscure the laziness of the chord changes, and mostly succeeds, but I am left with tracks with too much sameness. Even "Mad Woman" and "Epiphany," though they vary up the chords with the subphrase chains, end up with very little contrast.

The bright spots

I think three songs rise above the crowd in Folklore
  1. "The Last Great American Dynasty" is a great story song with a conventional song structure—but the story pulls us along, as we wonder if something horrible is going to happen to the described woman. But at the end, instead of condemning her, Taylor connects herself to the supposed misbehavior, critiquing those who think women (especially rich women) should behave a certain way ("Mad Woman" is another explicitly feminist song, with a similar "pot calling the kettle black" message). 
  2. "Invisible String" almost falls into the chained-subphrases-over-the-same chord trap, but Swift varies up the chord changes in the middle of the verse megaphrase, and throws in a nice contrasting bridge (I think we could have an argument about whether there is a chorus at all; the catchy melisma, perhaps the best candidate for a chorus, seems to use the same chords as the beginning of the verse). The plucked string texture that pervades the song is lovely. And to add a bit more interest, the chord pattern changes over the last return of the melisma, reminiscent of the chords used in the bridge, taking us out of the song à la "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" (the “devils roll the dice” motif also occurs in "Invisible String," but only briefly and in the middle of a phrase; somewhat disguised, at least). 
  3. The production and songwriting of "Betty" reminds me of Fearless, which I'm sure is intentional, since Swift is telling a high-school story similar to the songs on that album. It's pretty amazing she can recall that style. I wonder what would happen if Swift next tried to write a whole album pretending to be her teenage songwriter self? Not that I think she should, if she didn't want to.
What did you think of Folklore?

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Favorite tracks of 2019 mix

Last postI presented my top six albums of 2019. But I wanted to share additional songs not on those albums that you should check out, so I made a mix. 2019 featured a bumper crop of socially-conscious songs, probably more than any other year since the late 60s, and I included some of my favorites in the playlist. I left off Billie Eilish and Lizzo, however, because they seemed omnipresent already. Here’s a Spotify playlist and some brief comments about each track (in no particular order):


  1. Ariana Grande: “NASA” from thank u, next – My favorite album from Grande’s quick Sweetener follow-up. Also, space exploration as metaphor is up my alley.
  2. Molly Tuttle: “Take the Journey” from When You’re Ready – Tuttle is the reigning Bluegrass guitar virtuoso. Check out her flying fingers playing this song here.
  3. Avril Lavigne: “Bigger Wow” from Head Above Water – Did you know that Avril Lavigne is still writing some decent music? Here’s an example.
  4. Jamila Woods: “BETTY” from Legacy! Legacy! – Each song on Woods’ sophomore album is inspired by a historical figure, many of whom were black. This one is inspired by funk musician Betty Davis, who was “not your typical girl.”
  5. Santana and Buika: “Bembele” from Africa Speaks – Yeah, Santana’s still making music, too. He worked on this album with Afro-Spanish singer Buika.
  6. Tacocat: “Hologram” from This Mess Is a Place – My favorite palindrome-named pop-punk band put out a great album this year mostly addressing the politics of 2019 and this is probably the best song on it; the message is that power can be an illusion.
  7. Sheryl Crow and St. Vincent: “Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You” from Threads – Yes, Sheryl Crow put out music this year, too (this time with a bunch of collaborators), and this great song sounds like classic Crow and reminds me of Veronica Mars.
  8. MUNA: “Number One Fan” from Saves the World – Maybe the most catchy and danceable song of 2019, it also is self-affirming.
  9. Common Holly: “Joshua Snakes” from When I Say to You Black Lightning – The first line of this all-over-the-place song about an abusive relationship got my attention. The flute solo is a plus.
  10. Kathryn Tickell and the Darkening: “O-U-T Spells Out” from Hollowbone – A combination rock folk song and magic spell with a Northumbrian bagpipe solo/dance break.
  11. Coldplay: “Orphans” from Everyday Life – I am usually not a Coldplay fan (they don’t really know how to write bridges), but this song is pretty good—and it is written from the perspective of war refugees, who are normal people, too. The song even has a bridge—sort of.
  12. Twice: “Fancy” from Fancy You – You have probably heard of BTS, but Twice is another K-pop idol group you should know about. The form is fun—I’m not sure if the song has two pre-choruses or just a long two-part chorus. Also, definitely a bridge.
  13. Karine Polwart and Seckou Keita: “Heartwood” from The Lost Words: Spell Songs – A group of folk musicians read Robert Macfarlane’s book The Lost Words about many nature-related words dropped from the 2007’s Oxford “Junior” Dictionary, and were inspired to create a companion album of songs; this song comes from the perspective of tree inviting the lumberjack to give up.
  14. Taylor Swift: “The Man” from Lover – Swift’s first album tackling social issues includes this great song, probably my favorite from the album, addressing sexism in the music industry.
  15. Amanda Palmer: “A Mother’s Confession” from There Will Be No Intermission – Looking at my top music from this year, I am apparently a fan of 10-minute story songs, and this is an expressive one from Amanda Palmer about being a new mother. I went to Palmer’s tour, which featured her performing this song (with a sing-a-long section), plus a version of Little Mermaid’s “Part of Your World” figuratively sung by an unborn fetus. The part-standup show was almost four hours long; luckily, there was an intermission.