The Pickled Priest Takes On...Taylor Swift's folklore

In a new semi-regular feature, titled The Pickled Priest Takes On..., we'll pick an album by a huge star or band and dissect it in detail to find out how it ticks and why so many people love it. Along the way, we'll give you our honest take on whether the hype seems justified or not. It's just one person's opinion and I fully expect that yours may be different. I respect that. Without further ado, this week...

The Pickled Priest Takes on…

Taylor Swift’s folklore

Taylor has been badgering Pickled Priest for a thorough opinion of her new record ever since she surprised us with it a couple weeks ago (“You’re the only one I trust!” “Tell me if I’m a fraud,” blah blah blah) to which we replied sarcastically, “Don’t you have another house to buy or something?” Then she laughed dismissively, and suddenly got very real, “Seriously Priest, take this on…NOW.” If you knew Tay like we do, you’d realize it’s just best to pacify her, so we did her one better. We created a new regular segment in her honor called “The Priest Takes on…” which will force us to delve into artists and albums of significance to the world of pop culture with an open yet critical mind. We had our creative group prepare headlines for all outcomes: FolkBORE! FolkMORE!! Jokebore! FolkFLOORED! But better judgment won out and we didn’t use a snappy title at all in the end. Here’s our song-by-song take on the album and a wrap-up at the end.

folklore

Before we get started, I can’t tell you how much I despise “stylized” band names and song titles. I’m going to buckle this time and use the all-lowercase approach being used here, mainly because I don’t want her “people” coming after me (again), but it’s irritating nonetheless. OK. Let’s fire up this 16-song mega-opus. Fresh ears, everyone, fresh ears!

“the 1”

I immediately was taken aback by this simple yet striking song from my first listen and it’s the perfect track to introduce the album. The opening line sounds like she’s updating a friend on her current status, “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit/Been saying ‘Yes’ instead of ‘No,’” and it provides a mountain of information in a small package. I’m pretty sure this isn’t autobiographical, but I could be wrong. Maybe it’s inspired by something that happened deeper in her past. Either way, to me it sounds like the beginning of a phone call with an old friend who is checking on her mental health in the aftermath of a particularly traumatizing breakup. I should say here that I don’t follow Taylor’s personal life at all and I never will—although I discerned from the song “Lover” that she’s found happiness for now. The music has to stand on its own at the Pickled Priest. And more importantly, I think love songs and heartbreak songs are more impactful when you aren’t privy to all the grimy details anyway. Many artists follow that approach, preferring the listener give the song its own personal meaning where appropriate. That said, damn good song right off the bat.

Taylor-made Moment: FYI—this section is a little appendix to each song where we will point out our favorite aspect of the song just discussed (mood, playing, singing, lyrics, etc.) This song demonstrates one of Taylor’s greatest talents—boiling the essence of an entire song down to a single line, but not making a big deal about it, where some other songwriters might focus precisely on that moment for the song’s main hook. In this case, the lines “You know the greatest films of all time were never made,” and “You know the greatest loves of all time are over now.” These two powerful lines capture the aftermath of a broken heart, and the healing process that follows, in brilliantly succinct fashion. Lines like these are what take a song from good to great for me. I do wonder why she didn’t put in a “You know the greatest songs of all time were never sung” line, but maybe that was too obvious. Or perhaps, she didn’t believe it.

“cardigan”

It’s well known by now that this is part of “The Sweater Trilogy,” along with “autumn” and “betty,” which tackles a teenage breakup from three different angles (the girl, the “other” girl, the boy), but for now I’m going to focus on the songs individually. We’ll get to the bigger concept later.

“cardigan” is where the true feel and sound of folklore comes together completely for the first time and alerts fans that this is not your typical Taylor Swift record. I imagine some were taken aback by the understated, cloudier tone of the record (much as people were when Miranda Lambert released The Weight of These Wings back in 2016). The mood of folklore may have been in Taylor’s mind all along, so tapping the National’s Aaron Dessner to aid in its creation is a savvy move on her part (yes, pop mastermind Jack Antonoff, the production wizard behind most of Lover, is also never far out of the picture for better or worse). The National is one of those bands that has mastered the art, sometimes to a fault, of adding textural ambiance to its albums. Clearly she wanted a little of that atmosphere for her highly personal, pandemic-fueled new album. Predictably, there’s a consistent atmosphere throughout most of folklore that mirrors the time in which is was created and it generally works brilliantly throughout. She’s managed to make a record that sounds a lot like people feel these days. Personally, it’s a welcome change of direction from her past productions. There’s less premeditation this time by design. This is a “no dancers allowed” record, and thank heaven for that. If I see her doing another awkward head-jerk, hip-twerk dance move in a concert film I think I’m going to blow my TV off the wall with a 12-gauge.

The song begs to be heard in a different light from other Swift compositions even if she doesn’t always succeed. The old Taylor is still ever present, so the songs aren’t as big a departure from her earlier work as they seem when put under the microscope. At least from a lyrical angle, she frequently falls back on what I’ve dubbed “The Swift Shift” which is her tendency to begin a song with a compelling verse only to fall back suddenly into the modern pop songwriting trope of adding a sing-songy cadence shift to keep the interest of attention-challenged listeners. It rears its head again and again and it first appears during the passage that starts, “But I knew you/Dancing in your Levi’s/Drunk under a streetlight…” If she only did it this once, I’d be all about it. But she leans on the same formula way too often throughout folklore. I’m not against tempo changes, of course, but it seems more of a habit than a creative decision. Has it unknowingly become her songwriting “crutch”? (A gold-plated, diamond-encrusted crutch, but a crutch nonetheless.) I’m not surprised if it has, however, because this same lyrical approach has become prevalent in modern pop productions these days. There has been a marked increase in prominence of “hit-maker” song doctors (like her beloved Antonoff) who have become more and more involved in the song-crafting process for major pop stars. At the last Grammy Awards ceremony, sometimes seven to nine production and songwriting credits were listed for one song or album. The process of crafting a hit has turned into such a science that it seems to be affecting the current art of songwriting—primarily in the money-making genres of pop and rap—even when those new songs are written in relative solitude. Take the show Songland, for example, where “experts” take really good songs and transform them into radio-friendly singles for desperate songwriters (and the new versions are rarely for the better in my opinion). Perhaps we’ve been reinforcing a formula for pop success unknowingly, to the point where people don’t realize they’re doing it anymore. Yes, it’s also possible that Taylor comes to this type of songwriting naturally, but I’m willing to bet an insidious force may be at play.

Taylor-made Moment: “A friend to all is a friend to none/Chase two girls, lose the one/When you are young, they assume you know nothing.”

“the last great american dynasty”

Ah, the circle of life! Become a dynasty in your own right, buy the mansion of a former oil tycoon on the coast of Rhode Island, be inspired to write a song about the “mad” wife of said oil tycoon, and then carry on her carefree spirit in your own similar, but distinct, way. Genius! I’ve heard my fair share of Taylor’s songs, but this one is totally out of left field and ranks with her best songs ever. Easily the most original, engrossing, and enjoyable tale on the whole record, which considering the overall mood isn’t saying much, but it does provide a glimpse of what Taylor’s future may entail as she ages gracefully. Perhaps the scope of her songwriting is about to burst open? I’ve read conflicting information on who wrote the lion’s share of this song, but I don’t have it in me to confirm/deny. I’ll leave that to the superfans. Either way, I love this song—the way she economically sets the scene, the choice details she provides—and I hope as her career progresses we hear more adventurous Gatsby-esque tales. Is the White House for sale?

Taylor-made Moment: This has been clarified a thousand times elsewhere, but to be thorough, the song was inspired by the true story of Standard Oil heir Bill Harkness and his wife Rebekah’s “Holiday House” in Rhode Island (see photo), which Taylor went on to buy for something like 18 mill. His wife, not born into old money, seemed to enjoy tweaking high society types. I love how Taylor works in detailed references to Rebekah’s zany behavior: “Filled the pool with champagne and swam with the big names,” “Losing card game bets with Dali,” and “In a feud with her neighbor/She stole his dog and dyed it lime green.”

“exile”

There’s no doubt this record is a milestone for Taylor in many ways. It’s without a doubt her most adult record, it features her most convincing vocals, and it’s easily her most “real” sounding overall. (If I had my way, I’d have had her cut the record in a dilapidated old shack in the Mississippi Delta, but I like it really raw.) This long distance “duet” features the rich, weathered vocals of Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) and he pretty much steals the song with his performance. While she’s got a decent voice—not very dynamic, relatively vanilla—I think she sounds a little overmatched here. She’s an effective singer and all, but it’s not until you hear her side-by-side with someone so distinctive that you can suddenly become aware of her limitations. (I expect to be crucified by an angry mob of teenage girls for those comments.) Regardless, the song is beautiful and provides a nice break in a record that is, frankly, a lot to take in one sitting. Perhaps it was inspired by the last National record, I Am Easy to Find, which accentuated its similarly stark atmosphere with the heavy presence of female voices (and was too long by 20 minutes). That record was the perfect tonic for a band in the middle of a strong, but relatively monochromatic, string of records. It also proved that sharing the wealth now and then makes you even richer in the process. Strangely, Vernon’s spot would’ve been a perfect fit for the voice of the National’s lead singer Matt Berninger (he and Vernon could be brothers). Maybe Aaron realized that would be too predictable a choice. Sadly, though, it’s the only time she branches out on the entire marathon of a record (you could drive from Rhode Island to Nashville before the album ends). I would’ve pushed for even more variety (maybe a female partner?) if given the production reins.

Justin-made Moment: Any time Justin sings.

“my tears ricochet”

Here’s yet another song that will surely send the Swift gossip-sphere into a tizzy, scrambling to determine the real-life inspiration. At some point, years from now, the song will stand on its own, circumstances of creation passing trivia, so why not assess its long-term use now? I find the best way to get people off the gossip train is just to chime in with, “I heard she wrote it about her dog,” and walk away. Either way, this song is classic Swift, with a gorgeous chorus, surprisingly cliché-free, and a nice melody to boot. At times cerebral, other times angry, always soul searching. She’s made a crushing end-of-love song here, one that should stand the test of time. If I ever get to one of her concerts (unlikely) I’m going to bring a giant lighter hooked to a 55-gallon drum of kerosene and flick it on during the opening notes. It'll light up the whole arena.

Taylor-made Moment: The stunning admission/accusation, “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace/’Cause when I’d fight you used to tell me I was brave/And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?”

“mirrorball”

Not a bad song at all, but not one of my favorites. Which means one thing, of course; it’s the one getting the most love in the music press. To me, it seems a little beneath the quality of previous songs. Mirrorballs, chandeliers, mistletoe, and just about anything else that hangs from the ceiling, has been done before and better. Surely there has to be a less obvious analogy to force down our throats. And lyrically, the song’s kind of a mess when you put it under the microscope. The first chunk of the song is actually relatively pretty, but after that Taylor doubles down on the forced analogies with a trip to the circus tent complete with horses, clowns, flying trapeze, and tightrope. I get what she’s trying to convey, but if you’ve got to send in the clowns to help make your point, perhaps that’s a sign to fold up the big top.

Taylor-made Moment: Still looking for it.

“seven”

There are two distinct parts to this song. First, we have the soaring, beautiful verses that evoke beautiful childlike sentiments in a poetic and touching way. Nice. Then there are the “Swift shift” parts that start with “Sweet tea in the summer…” and we find her leaning hard on her favorite crutch again. Even if you could make a case that this verse works well for this song, with its playground jump-rope cadence, I can’t get over the hump and it taints the song for me overall.

Taylor-made Moment: “In the swing over the creek/I was too scared to jump in/But I was high in the sky/With Pennsylvania under me/Are there still beautiful things?

“august”

This whole record seems to start at the tail-end of summer and then drifts slowly into early fall, with sad feet shuffling through fallen leaves. Here, presumably, we have another fleeting summer love affair crashing against the rocks. It’s like “Summer Nights” from the Grease soundtrack forgot to take its Zoloft. You’re going to tire of this observation if you haven’t already, but it also has yet another “Swift shift” straight into the sing-songy chorus, “But I can see us lost in the memory…” You may come to her defense and say, “That’s the chorus!” but I see it differently. Choruses can be complex, they can be versatile, they cannot all have the same fucking cadence! I guess all I need to do at this point is edit some of these songs down to my favorite parts. That way, my “issues” would be gone and the length of the record (I’m seriously thinking about putting a 60.4 sticker on the back of my SUV to commemorate this experience) would no longer be an issue. Also, as I mentioned earlier, this song also acts as Part 2 of “The Sweater Trilogy,” which I have now decided not to mention or discuss again in this article.

Taylor-made Moment: In the first 22 words, so much information is conveyed. The scene is set.

“this is me trying”

So far, although my comments may seem to indicate otherwise, I’m pretty impressed with this record. But I must admit, around this song I found myself checking the time and scanning the track list on my phone, trying to gauge how much longer I’d be occupied. I was nonplussed to discover I’m only halfway through the record. It’s not that I don’t think the first half is prime Taylor Swift, but I know myself well. I get cranky when people overstay their welcome. I really, really like the sentiment of this song though. It seems to have many potential interpretations. I also like the dreamy feel of the song, although it seems over-produced (was Alan Lomax busy?). This would’ve worked better as an indie-rock/bedroom-pop type song. I want the “ache” so close I can taste it.

Taylor-made Moment: I can see myself singing the titular chorus to myself in many situations: while futilely working to repair the power-washer to trying to stay awake during a subtitled chick-flick, etc.

“illicit affairs”

A handy-dandy guide to having an affair by renowned pop-psychologist Taylor Swift. It’s an honest look at the downside of succumbing to your impulsive desires, although it will surely not act as a deterrent for anybody anywhere anytime. It’s a bit of an odd fit for the album, but we’ll allow it.

Taylor-made Moment: This ingenious post-cheap motel intercourse tip: tell people you went out for a run at lunch. If you’ve never run a block in your life it could backfire of course.

“invisible string”

A perfect little pop song with simple accompaniment and a nifty lyrical string (no, not a thread) weaved throughout. The album needed a little pep right about now and this provides it. I imagine this would’ve been a tough album to sequence, but they got this one right. Just what I needed for the homestretch!

Taylor-made Moment: For me, the key is in the verses, each starting similarly: “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind for the boys who broke my heart/Now I send their babies presents/Gold was the color of the leaves when I showed you around Centennial Park/Hell was the journey but it brought me heaven.” See Taylor, I knew you could do it!

“mad woman”

This came a little too late for the second season of Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, which I just binge watched, but it could’ve been the song played over the opening credits. It totally captures the mood of the story and acts as an anthem of sorts for women who go crazy trying to prove they aren’t in a world that often favors men, no matter how sinister they become. And , on top of that, they’re often rewarded and forgiven for their egregious behavior. Her business battles with Scooter Braun being one example. It’s a great song from “Side 2” of folklore.

Taylor-made Moment: “Now I breathe flames each time I talk/My cannon’s all firing at your yacht/They say ‘move on’ but you know I won’t.”

“epiphany”

This song has great intent, speaking of soldiers on the front line and what they deal with, but can never speak of again, and then fast forwarding to modern hospitals during the pandemic, and dealing with the same thing in a different way. Both unwittingly find themselves in a situation where they are the last person someone else sees before death and they are keenly aware this isn’t how it’s supposed to end for anyone. Powerful stuff. I do wish, heavy sigh, the support for the concept was better, however—it deserves more musically. I really wonder what some of her younger fans are going to make of this record. There are some heavy concepts discussed, some harsh realities. At the very least they’ll know how to have an illicit affair when they grow up.

Taylor-made Moment: “Only twenty minutes to sleep/But you dream of some epiphany/Just one single glimpse of relief/To make some sense of what you’ve seen.” Powerful stuff.

“betty”

This is Part 3 of the godforsaken “Sweater Trilogy” which started back on “cardigan” and continued on “august,” which, according to my biological clock, was some two-hours ago at this point. I vowed not to bring it up again, I realize now. People have been quick to admire her so-called trilogy, but let’s face it, it’s not that innovative of a concept. (She’s no Krzysztof Kieslowski.) I know this song is an important cog in said trilogy, and in theory the concept is rock solid, but I just don’t like the song very much. For me, it’s one of the weakest on the record and seems like an outlier in an otherwise cohesive production. In other words, it’s one of the most acclaimed songs on the record. Go figure.

Idea: Since the album is so long (have I mentioned that it’s 64-fucking-minutes without the bonus track?), why not separate it into two parts? Part One: the original album plus "the lakes" minus the sweater trilogy. Two: the “Betty” EP including the full trilogy all on its own. That would shorten the main album, tighten the teenage breakup story arc (if not told, would I have figured it out myself?), and the EP could’ve been used as the “physical CD/LP enticement” for fans in lieu of just one track. Maybe she could’ve added a whimsical cover of Meryn Cadell’s 1992 novelty hit “The Sweater” to provide some levity at the end. It would show she has a heart and a sense of humor simultaneously.

Taylor-made Moment: Owning your cruelty, what a concept: “The worst thing that I ever did/Was what I did to you.” More men should have such realizations.

“peace”

I made some notes as I was listening to the album and all I wrote here was “Christ almighty, when does this end?!” You know an album is long when you’re enjoying it and are still desperate for its conclusion. Here she aspires to profundity, and maybe she even achieves it, but she could reveal the recipe for a Covid-19 antidote at this point, and I’d still be staring at my watch with sleepy eyes.

Taylor-made Moment: The start of the next, and final, track.

“hoax”

A real nice ending, although it still relies on the Swift formula. It was a good decision to cap the non-physical version of the record with this song. I appreciate the economical lyrical content. That said, I won’t be getting this far into the album much from this point forward. Perhaps a shuffle approach is merited going forward.

Taylor-made Moment: Nap time.

BONUS CUT:

“the lakes”

I’m sure this is Swift’s ultimate masterpiece, although I haven’t even listened to it yet. I called Tay and bitched, but she just said “Buy the fucking album, Priest, you’re always giving people shit about supporting artists, how streaming sucks, and shit like that. So don’t come to me for handouts! These oceanfront estates don’t buy them fucking selves, do they?!” I rebuffed, “But I downloaded the album not realizing there was an incentive for folks who purchase a physical copy of the CD or LP and now I’m screwed. I don’t have the complete album!” Then she said, “Cry me a fucking river….just review the goddamn record,” or something to that effect. On the positive side, I don’t care if “the lakes” is “Stairway to Heaven, Part 2”—the last thing this album needs is yet ANOTHER song. I know you’re world famous and can release an album of toilet flushes and it would sell, but please...GET…AN…EDITOR!

Actually, as long as it is clearly conveyed, I don’t mind giving “physical” releases a special push by “sweetening the pot” a little for those who care enough about an artist’s music to get an official artifact memorializing their hard work (these are called either “CDs” or “vinyl records” by some). But, even I balked when I heard they released eight different versions of folklore as “collectors items” each with a different cover and “collectible album lyrics booklets.” You know your passionate fans will want them all, don’t you Taylor? It seems like a shameless money grab to me and it takes your spontaneous, surprise album drop—a boost to your fans in a time of great emotional, financial, and social unrest—and turns it into a expertly strategized publicity stunt. I know, I know, you can’t win with some people, but c’mon. This record was begging for restraint and would’ve been better off that way.

POSTSCRIPT

I am not a Taylor Swift fan, by trade, and I wouldn’t classify myself as one now. I don’t know her history as well as millions of others. I don’t know the words to every song she’s every written. This exercise was simply an effort to try something new, have a little fun, and also try to figure out what the hype is all about. All told, I’m happy to have this album and I will return to it semi-regularly and I will allow it to grow with me along the way (up or down, both possible). I am very impressed with her in general and she seems to handle herself very well in a very tough position—the most bankable musician on the planet. Not an easy task—you cannot please everybody all the time (as this post details). I would kill to have a portion of her talent. I am also very impressed with her artistic integrity. This album shows growth and maturity and bodes well for her future. Yes, I’m more than a little disappointed in her reliance on songwriting tropes and song doctors, but I have my tropes as a writer, too. Way more than she has as a musician. So well done, Taylor. I look forward to your 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond. She clearly named this album folklore for a reason. These are songs to pass on over the years, to revisit, to remember. Mission accomplished.

I may not have done a great job, but this is me trying. See ya next time. Thanks for reading.

The Priest