DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. The release of Taylor Swift's "Folklore," her new, eighth studio album, caught fans by surprise. There had been no reports that Swift was working on a new release. And yet, here it is, recorded in coronavirus lockdown. It contains 16 new songs, into which she poured, she said on social media, quote, "all my whims, dreams, fears and musings," unquote. Rock critic Ken Tucker says he approached the new album very skeptically.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTY")
TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Betty, I won't make assumptions about why you switched your homeroom. But I think it's because of me. Betty, one time I was riding on my skateboard. When I passed your house, it's like I couldn't breathe. You heard the rumors from Inez. You can't believe a word she says most times. But this time, it was true. The worst thing that I ever did was what I did to you.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: When I heard that Taylor Swift was rushing out an album she'd completed over just the last couple of months, my inner eye rolled with sarcastic dubiousness. Swift usually prepares her album releases with the scrupulous deliberation and elaborate technology of a NASA moon launch. So when I saw that the album was called "Folklore" and that the album package featured misty, black-and-white photos of Swift walking in the woods, I thought, oh, no. Is this going to be like when Justin Timberlake put on a lumberjack shirt and lost his rhythm on "Man Of The Woods?" Nope. I was wrong.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARDIGAN")
SWIFT: (Singing) Vintage tee, brand new phone, high heels on cobble stones. When you are young, they assume you know nothing. Sequin smile, black lipstick, sensual politics. When you are young, they assume you know nothing. But I knew you, dancing in your Levi's, drunk under a streetlight. I - I knew you, hand under my sweatshirt. Baby, kiss it better. I - and when I felt like I was an old cardigan under someone's bed, you put me on and said I was your favorite.
TUCKER: That's "Cardigan," The first single off the album. This collection was recorded working remotely with producer Jack Antonoff and a new collaborator, Aaron Dessner, the multi-instrumentalist member of the indie rock band The National, with whom Swift co-wrote 11 of 16 songs. Nevertheless, every composition sounds like a Taylor Swift song. Take, for example, this one called "Mad Woman," in which he addresses the eternally irritating way men call women crazy and angry as ways to diminish them.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAD WOMAN")
SWIFT: (Singing) Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy. What about that? And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry. And there's nothing like a mad woman. What a shame she went mad. No one likes a mad woman. You made her like that. And you poke that bear until the claws come out. And you find something to wrap your noose around. And there's nothing like a mad woman.
TUCKER: Interestingly, being isolated has made Swift's songwriting less self-absorbed. The lyrics are not stuffed, for example, with the usual Easter eggs filled with the rotten candy of revenge for her various pop world rivals. Instead, she's more interested in describing other people's lives and the world that we all used to walk around in so freely. One striking example of this is "The Last Great American Dynasty." It's a story song about Rebekah Harkness, the eccentric, wealthy widow who used to occupy the big house Swift moved into some years ago in Watch Hill, R.I.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAST GREAT AMERICAN DYNASTY")
SWIFT: (Singing) Rebekah rode up on the afternoon train. It was sunny. Hey saltbox house on the coast took her mind off St. Louis. Bill was the heir to the Standard Oil name and money. And the town said, how did a middle-class divorcee do it? The wedding charming if a little gauche. There's only so far new money goes. They picked out a home and called it Holiday House. Their parties were tasteful if a little loud. The doctor had told him to settle down. It must have been her fault his heart gave out. And they said, there goes the last great American dynasty.
BIANCULLI: One of the best songs on "Folklore" is called "Mirrorball," a lovely pop song. It's like a tune you'd hear from the Bangles or the Mamas and the Papas, but slowed down to render it a ballad even as it remains groovy and catchy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIRRORBALL")
SWIFT: (Singing) I want you to know I'm a mirrorball. I'll show you every version of yourself tonight. I'll get you out on the floor - shimmering, beautiful. And when I break, it's in a million pieces. Hush. When no one is around, my dear...
TUCKER: How excellent it is that Swift hasn't spent her quarantine days penning earnest thumb-suckers about the state of the world, but rather cooking up a yeasty kind of sugar-free pop that rises above much recent music-making. The song "Cardigan" has the refrain, when you are young, they assume you know nothing, which reminded me that Swift turned 30 this year. And "Folklore" feels like a dividing line, a marking off of her past as she and we enter our uncertain future.
BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker reviewed Taylor Swift's new album called "Folklore." Coming up, we remember Annie Ross, one-third of the acclaimed and innovative vocal jazz trio known as Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. She died Tuesday of complications from emphysema and heart disease. She was 89 years old. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "LOLA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.