Taylor Swift, “folklore” (Republic Records)
In the years since Taylor Swift released her killer pop album “1989” in 2014, the singer has amped the production of her music, adding sounds including electronica, synth pop, R&B, dubstep, dance and even rap to her songs. Not everyone was ready for the rap style of “... Ready for It?” though it worked.
But while pop star Taylor, with all the bops and beats, is enjoyable and entertaining, her new singer-songwriter album is a welcomed return. In a time of madness, “folklore” feels like a moment to escape.
Her eighth record has a calmness and coolness reminiscent of the 2008 masterpiece “Fearless” and 2010’s charming “Speak Now,” as poetic lines about life are brought to life thanks to Swift’s sharp songwriting, with the light but piercing production doing its job by lifting the lyrics.
Swift is a grand storyteller, and “folklore” explores a lot. On some songs, she’s singing about life before she moved to Nashville as a teen to embark on her musical career. On other tracks, she’s telling the stories of others — doing it so well and vividly that you can paint the picture as the tracks play.
Frequent collaborator and one of contemporary music’s best producers, Jack Antonoff, assists on most of the album, while The National’s Aaron Dessner should be saluted for his massive contributions to the project. And epic vocals from Bon Iver match well with Swift’s soft tone on “exile.”
The 16 tracks weave into each other nicely, blending to make this folk-pop-country-Americana-guitar rock-singer-songwriter album work. Whatever the genre, “folklore” is first-class.
Lori McKenna, “The Balladeer” (CN Records/Thirty Tigers)
On “When You’re My Age,” one of the best cuts from her fine new album “The Balladeer,” singer-songwriter Lori McKenna readily concedes that these are challenging times.
“When you’re my age,” she writes, “I hope the world is kinder than it seems to be right now/And I hope the front page isn’t just a reminder, of how we keep letting each other down.”
That’s about as political as the two-time Grammy winner is likely to get. It also might be the one element that sets this album firmly in 2020.
McKenna, who lives in her native Massachusetts but plies her trade in Nashville, is wiser and more firmly established in who she is. But the consistent level of high-quality songcraft she’s established through three consecutive albums now is remarkable.
It doesn’t hurt that she’s working again with Nashville’s go-to producer of award-winning work, Dave Cobb. He helps elevate her journey through familiar themes — life advice, vivid memories, connections to people she loves — on an acoustic foundation that’s elegant but never overcooked.
McKenna’s songwriting, though, is clearly the featured attraction. The album showcases her knack for starting out someplace corny then veering off into something original.
Take, for example, a song called “Stuck in High School.”
“I rose-colored those memories with drug store sunglasses, I never liked warm beer or cigarettes,” she sings. “But I liked watching the smoke clear the high school fence.”
There it is, the master’s art. The cliche is the starting point, the rose-colored glasses, altered just enough to not be tiresome. But then the scene gives way to something unforgettably visual.
It helps explain why McKenna has by now long established herself as one of the best songwriters working in any genre. And she does it again and again.