Nearly every Taylor Swift album so far has been carefully rolled out via a cleverly put-together release strategy. Eighth record ‘Folklore’, however, dropped mid-lockdown in July with just 12 hours’ warning – and bar a short statement from Swift, fans were left to decipher its meaning themselves. After a few months of letting it bed in, the pop star has finally revealed some of the music’s secrets in a new Disney+ documentary.
‘Folklore’ was a cosy, indie-leaning left-turn for Swift, and folklore: the long pond sessions leans further into this. While last year’s Netflix doc Miss Americana saw Taylor wrestling with her place in the larger pop machinery – as well as Grammy snubs, her political awakening and tabloid intrusions on her private life – this new film is more interested with the actual music.
Shot largely at Aaron Dessner’s Long Pond Studios in idyllic Hudson, New York (fans of his band The National will recognise the studio’s exterior from the cover of 2017’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’), the film sees Swift, Dessner and Jack Antonoff – the album’s three writers and producers – play the record in full for the first time, with stories and explainers given for each track before it’s played.
As rumoured, she confirms that her boyfriend Joe Alwyn is indeed the anonymous songwriter William Bowery, who wrote parts of ‘Exile’ and ‘Betty’. Swift also explains the prominent fan theory that ‘Cardigan’, ‘Betty’ and ‘August’ dip into the same high-school narrative at different moments in the timeline.
Elsewhere, a masked Justin Vernon of Bon Iver joins in (remotely) for a stunning duet on ‘Exile’, with Swift telling the sweet story that she and Alwyn, both huge Bon Iver fans, imagined Vernon singing the song as soon as they started writing it together, but were too afraid to ask. In stepped Dessner – who plays with Vernon in folk-rock side-project Big Red Machine – to inadvertently give Swift her wish. It’s a magical watch.
Then there’s the genuinely touching back-and-forth between Swift and Dessner on ‘Peace’, which features the refrain: “Would it be enough if I could never give you peace?” According to Swift, she’s asking Alwyn whether the problems caused for him by her level of celebrity are trumped by their love for each other; Dessner’s read was about the difficulties his wife faces as a result of his depression. This is where the film’s format – explainer, then performance – works best, and the subsequent run through of ‘Peace’ hits right in the gut.
In a film that largely steers clear of controversy, the only tense moment concerns Swift’s feud with talent manager Scooter Braun, who she’s currently embroiled in a feud over music rights with. Performing closing track ‘The Lakes’, she stares directly into the camera for the first and only time in the entire film as she sings: “I’ve come too far to watch some name dropping sleaze tell me what are my words worth.” Although at odds with the film’s relaxed vibe, it’s understandable why Swift would use this platform to make a point. As she begins to re-record her old material in an attempt to regain autonomy over the music that made her a star, Braun continues to cash in.
For the most part though, the new movie focuses on gifting fans a rare glimpse behind the scenes. ‘Folklore’ will be remembered as the quintessential lockdown album – and for many, self-isolation with Swift is a perfect (if unexpected) early Christmas present.
- Starring: Taylor Swift, Jack Antonoff, Aaron Dessner
- Release date: November 25 (Disney+)