Taylor Swift’s music has always been the most interesting thing about Taylor Swift, and she’s rarely more interesting than when she’s talking about her music. You would think this would be obvious, considering she’s one of the defining singer-songwriters of her generation, but for large portions of her decade and a half career, the conversations around her have focused on just about everything else: her romances, her feuds, her aesthetics, her strategic alliances, her business calculations, her imagined politics, her actual politics, her role as a feminist icon, her role as an avatar of white fragility, her authenticity, her inauthenticity, her videography, her numerology, her cats. Last winter’s Sundance documentary “Miss Americana” allowed her to tackle most of these issues head-on, often with a frankness that we rarely saw out of the increasingly private star, but even there, Swift’s music sometimes risked getting lost in all the noise.
Perhaps that’s why “Folklore,” the decidedly low-key album she recorded during quarantine and released with zero fanfare in July, felt like such a breath of fresh air. It also didn’t hurt that it was one of the best things she’s ever done. Working remotely with veteran collaborator Jack Antonoff and new producer/co-writer Aaron Dessner (best known as the guitarist for sad-dad-rock mainstays the National), Swift used “Folklore” to cast off the spectacle, the commercial calculations, and the meta-framing of her last few albums and focus instead on the fine-tuned intimacy and incisive turns of phrase that made her such a singular voice to begin with. The one thing that album was missing, however, was the immediacy of a studio setting, and so for this week’s Disney Plus release “Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions,” she’s assembled Dessner and Antonoff in person to play through each song live.
Aside from some brief home videos of Swift recording the album earlier this year, the entire film takes place at the titular studio in New York’s Hudson Valley: a cozy, exposed-wood cabin situated on a picturesque piece of waterfront real estate, surrounded by chairs, string lights and fire pits where the artists can retire to sip wine and tea while discussing the day’s progress. (Frankly, the most succinct way to describe the setting would be “extremely Taylor Swift-like,” even though the studio is actually Dessner’s.) It wouldn’t be a Swift project without a few strategically teased Easter eggs — in this case, some hints about the love-triangle narrative that pops up irregularly throughout the album, and a revelation about the identity of her mysterious collaborator “William Bowery” — but the remote getaway vibe of the location mostly allows the focus to stay on the music.
Directed by Swift herself, the film is handsomely mounted though never flashy, and follows a simple repeated structure: We get a drone shot of the surroundings, then a brief interlude discussing the next song, and then a performance. The discussion sections are of highly variable quality, at times offering fascinating glimpses into Swift’s creative process, and at others sounding suspiciously like the sort of rehearsed banter she might have offered from the stage of an arena tour. As the newcomer to Swift’s circle, Dessner tends to draw the most out of her in conversation, offering his own interpretations of Swift’s lyrics and opening up about his personal struggles with depression during a chat about the song “Peace.” Longtime associate Antonoff is more likely to simply “yes, and” whatever Swift is saying, which can be slightly frustrating. When she mentions that “picking a track five is sort of a pressurized decision,” you want someone to ask her to elaborate, instead of knowingly nodding.
Naturally, the film’s main attractions are the performances, as the three run through each of “Folklore’s” tracks — bonus ones included — in order. None of the live renditions here are radically different from what’s heard on the record, though one can easily imagine Swiftian scholars endlessly debating the merits of each, the way Dylanologists still fight over which take of “Idiot Wind” is the canonical one. But it’s obvious that these three are enjoying the chance to once again exchange ideas in person rather than over email and Skype, and it’s impressive to watch just how thoroughly Dessner and Antonoff manage to re-create the record’s sparse yet carefully textured soundscapes with just a few guitars, a piano, some light drum machine and a solitary snare. (“Folklore’s” lone guest star, Justin Vernon, does Skype in his performance for the duet “Exile” from his own home studio, and adds enough improvised touches to keep the song from feeling overly familiar.)
Perhaps the most striking element of the film is its deep focus on Swift as a singer. Back in her “Fearless” days, Swift was subject to substantial criticism for her limited vocal prowess, which was always unfair. Swift was a lyrics-first singer-songwriter long before she was a pop star, and she deserved to be considered in the company of the former rather than contrasted with the Mariah Careys of the world.
Nonetheless, the control she has developed over her instrument in the years since is remarkable to behold, and Swift’s vocals sound simply lovely here. She still never allows a flourish or a tricky run to compromise the clarity of a lyric, but she knows exactly how to work wonders within her register, and she’s perfectly comfortable exploring its further reaches.
On “My Tears Ricochet,” Swift gives her voice a husky edge that almost calls Chan Marshall to mind — this is probably the oldest she’s ever sounded, and it becomes her nicely. Meanwhile, she can still summon the old wide-eyed “Teardrops on My Guitar” innocence when a song calls for it, and she’s practically bouncing off her seat when “Betty” hits its big key-change at the end.
Once again, it seems as though Swift envisions every album release or career move as another chapter of an elaborate, neverending bildungsroman, and “Long Pond” doesn’t give much indication of what the next one might look like. (Although she does note that “Folklore” taught her the value of songwriting that looks outward, rather than plumbing exclusively from her own experiences — for those of us left somewhat cold by her more tabloid-baiting “Reputation” period, that’s certainly a welcome note.) With this film, she just does the two things she does best: making excellent music, and giving people a new reason to talk about Taylor Swift. But at least she’s made sure that this time we’re talking about her for all the right reasons.
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