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Taylor Swift | Folklore

The pop-chart queen drops a surprise release — in more ways than one.

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WHO IS SHE? You gotta be kidding. OK, I’ll play along. She’s the squad leader. The pop-chart Queen Midas. The woman who dances like nobody’s watching at every awards show (even though she knows everybody’s watching), and then acts all surprised when she wins a trophy for, like, the zillionth time. What else? Oh yeah; she’s the woman who was voted most likely to rule the world in high school — and pulled it off. She’s the ex who told everyone your most embarrassing secrets after you broke up. And she’s the woman you know who desperately wants to be universally loved — but always seems to be feuding with somebody. Remember her now?

WHAT IS THIS? Her eighth studio album, which she surprise-released at midnight, only hours after announcing its existence. Actually, coming from Swift — an artist who has followed the traditional music-business playbook that includes massive publicity campaigns, multiple preview singles and big-budget videos for her previous releases, including last year’s Lover — a rebellious, low-key move like this is doubly surprising. Then again, the traditional music biz hasn’t exactly done her any favours lately, so who can blame her?

WHAT DOES IT SOUND LIKE? Well, not like its title. Despite being written and recorded during lockdown, Folklore is no homespun acoustic throwback to her country beginnings. Though it is quieter, more intimate and textured than anything else in her catalogue. And more experimental, thanks to the input of remote producer Aaron Dessner of The National (another surprise for a pop juggernaut like Swifty). These tracks ditch the big pop hooks and punchy arrangements for quiet piano and guitar ballads set against Dessner’s gently glitchy electronic backdrops. Along the same lines — and perhaps more importantly — they drop the sharp-tongued quips for more soul-searching and confessional lyrics. In the process, Swift delivers her most mature and sophisticated work to date. Not to mention a work that is thematically and emotionally appropriate album for these times.

WHAT ARE THE MOST REVEALING LYRICS? “I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere / Fell behind all my classmates and I ended up here.”

WHAT SHOULD IT BE TITLED? Down Time. Or perhaps Social Distance.

HOW SHOULD I LISTEN TO IT? Same way she presumably made it — at home, alone, while taking stock.

WHAT 10 WORDS SUM IT UP? Surprising, evolved, moody, tender, muted, grownup, experimental, subtle, grounded, artful.

WHAT ARE THE BEST SONGS? Lightly bouncy opener The1, the stark Bon Iver duet Exile, the shimmery Mirrorball, the richly layered This Is Me Trying, the tensely powerful Peace. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple more grow on me.

WHAT WILL MY FRIENDS SAY? ‘Sure, it’s kind of sombre at times. But at least it isn’t a bunch of songs about Zoom parties and dumping her boyfriend on FaceTime.”

HOW OFTEN WILL I LISTEN TO IT? It’s certainly a fine soundtrack to physical and/or emotional isolation. Whether it will hold up after lockdown ends is another story.

IF THIS ALBUM WERE A GREETING, WHAT WOULD IT BE? The sort of long, warm, full-on hug you won’t get from anyone outside your immediate family for a long time.

SHOULD I BUY, STREAM OR STEAL IT? I’m sure Swift won’t mind you streaming it while you decide whether to buy.