July 29, 2020 at 02:09PM

Freed from commercial obligations, Taylor Swift changes direction

TO RELEASE A surprise album is no longer a surprise: it’s just what superstars do. To be a superstar and to release a surprise album that sounds nothing like your previous work, as Taylor Swift did with “folklore” on July 24th, really is a surprise. Ms Swift took advantage of lockdown to quietly make a record that took a hard turn away from the pure pop of her recent albums, teaming up with Aaron Dessner of The National. Released to glowing reviews, “folklore” eschews bright synths and R&B rhythms, turning instead to a kind of dusty Americana, sparkling with subtle electronic touches.

Albert Einstein reportedly once said that “in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity”—and that is true of music, too. Covid-19 provided Ms Swift with the chance to venture into new pastures with no pressure to sell 80,000 tickets to 100 stadium concerts and no need to do the round of chat-shows and magazine interviews to promote the work. Without the normal demands of the music industry in place, she was able to do something purely because she wanted to. This being Ms Swift, early indications are that it has been a hit nevertheless: “folklore” sold 1.3m copies in its first 24 hours of release, and was streamed 80.6m times on Spotify in the same period, the highest release-day figure recorded by a female artist.

What’s surprising is that more artists have not used the turmoil of these past few months to try to stretch themselves. There have been unusual events—Charli XCX recording an album inspired by lockdown during lockdown; Nick Cave’s sublime solo piano show, which streamed last week—but nothing else quite on the scale of Ms Swift’s reinvention, no matter how temporary it might turn out to be.

Artists have often used crises to present new aspects of themselves to their public, sometimes resulting in dramatic shifts not just to their own style, but even to the shape of pop itself. On July 29th 1966 Bob Dylan crashed his motorcycle in Woodstock, New York, and used the period of recuperation to disappear. In the meantime, he holed up with The Band, writing and recording the songs that would years later be released as “The Basement Tapes”, but which entered circulation in bootleg form almost immediately. As well as being covered by artists such as Fairport Convention, Brian Auger, Julie Driscoll and the Trinity, and Manfred Mann, the songs were the inspiration for rock’s journey back to basics and its adoption of roots music in the late 1960s.


Brian Eno, too, turned injury into a new form of music after he was run over by a taxi in London in January 1975. Recovering at home, he put on an album of harp music an old girlfriend had brought round. One channel of his stereo didn’t work, and the amplifier was set at a very low level, with the result that the music was almost inaudible. “This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music,” Mr Eno said, “as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and sound of the rain were parts of the ambience.” Then he went off to invent ambient music.

Or take Robert Wyatt, who broke his spine in 1973, and—now a wheelchair user—swapped from being a drummer to a singer and keyboard player, in which guise he changed from being one of the prime movers in English experimental rock to being a wholly unique kind of singer-songwriter. Or recall Olafur Arnalds, the neo-classical composer who devised his Stratus self-playing piano system after an accident temporarily robbed him of the use of his right hand.

On the whole, of course, life would be more pleasant without crises and there can be no one who thinks that “folklore” makes up for the tragedies and privations visited upon the world this year. But the album shows how creative minds can pluck triumph from the grimmest of circumstances. “In isolation my imagination has run wild and this album is the result,” Ms Swift has said. “Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history and memory.” It will be some consolation for fans that they can join her.

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Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/07/29/freed-from-commercial-obligations-taylor-swift-changes-direction
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