Suddenly everybody is a Taylor Swift fan. Last week’s surprise release of her eighth album “folklore” — without advance singles, hype or capital letters — delighted her usual fanbase, but it did something more: It convinced a whole new audience — indie rockers, songwriting snobs, sensitive introverts — that Swift was one of theirs, an artist who transcended mainstream pop.
Is “folklore” that good? In a word, yes: It’s packed with melodic turns, heart-grabbing singing and lyrical surprises that many artists would kill for. But is it that much of a surprise? Yes and no. Swift’s been pushing herself creatively for years, even when it didn’t really work — See her last album from just 11 months ago, the glossy and retro-disco “Lover.” In some ways, “folklore” is just the opposite: With National member Aaron Dessner playing most of the instruments (mostly just keyboards and softer beats) it’s all slow, moody and homemade-sounding; an album designed to curl up with during shutdown.
Still, it’s the kind of indie album that only a renegade pop star could make. Swift has been in the game long enough to know what works on a grand scale: The catchy hooks and choruses on this album may not be obvious, but they’re there, and they grab hold — especially on “exile,” where she and Bon Iver pull off a romantic duet, and “seven,” which matches a haunting tune with a distant violin and an almost-rap section (As always, she’s good at pulling change-ups just when you’re sure where a song is going). Her voice on these songs is lightly distorted, as it might be if she was telling you these secrets in a Zoom call at midnight.
And the lyrics are a large part of the album’s appeal. Most of the songs deal with the after-effects of relationships, stretching back to high school in a few cases. And she can wrap up the messiness of those situations with a few choice phrases: “cardigan” deals with sensual memories, much like Prince did in his daring prime. And the late-night confession on “this is me trying” is seriously good writing by any standard: “They told me all of my cages were mental/ So I got wasted like all my potential/ And my words shoot to kill when I’m mad/ I have a lot of regrets about that.” It ends with the singer staring down a whiskey bottle — the only hint that Swift sang country music once upon a time.
Swift wound up catching this moment in pop so well that she effectively stole the thunder from the (formerly Dixie) Chicks, whose comeback album “Gaslighter” would have been bigger news otherwise. And true, it does sound a little timid next to Swift’s album: Like her, the Chicks have left country far behind, but they’ve gone pop with a vengeance. There are whomping drums everywhere and all the vocals are soaked in Auto-Tune, even though we know Natalie Maines sounds perfectly fine without it. (Producer and player Jack Antonoff worked on both albums, but his hand is heavier with the Chicks).
“Gaslighter” is a different kind of breakup album: Forget confessions and reflection, these Chicks are out for revenge. The album opens with two takedowns, the title track and “Sleep at Night,” both addressed to a loser of an ex (who may well be Maines’ former husband, actor Adrian Pasdar). In fact, one of the nicest sentiments on the album is probably addressed (on “Tights on My Boat”) to the same guy: “I hope you die peacefully in your sleep.” Other songs express support for women who’ve gotten out of abusive relationships. There is a shot of the group’s political concern on “March March,” which supports teachers and protesters. But elsewhere, the album cruises on pure venom — and there’s always a welcome place in pop music for that.