At this point in 2020, there is absolutely no headline under the sun that truly has the power to shock. Yet when it emerged that Taylor Swift had created a folk-inflected surprise record, in collaboration with members of The National and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, it still registered as a surprise.
It’s not surprising because Swift has pivoted to nature; her career started in country music and, rest assured, this is not her Justin Timberlake ‘Man of the Woods’ moment. No, it registered as a surprise because Taylor Swift has almost single handedly made dad-rock cool again.
To be completely clear before Hall & Oates Twitter comes after me: even if dad-rock has a cheesy reputation in certain ill-informed quarters, it slaps. In this divided and often bitter world, there is no purer joy than sticking on a record by Thin Lizzy, Electric Light Orchestra, Steely Dan or Billy Joel, gently drumming your thumbs on the nearest surface – and if it happens to be a car’s steering wheel, then even better.
In the early ’70s, the first wave of dad-rock shared a few major factors in common – a vague sense of contentment, virtuoso instrumentation, a sprinkle of melodrama and twanging air-guitar-ready solos. Often, too, there’s an element of ‘authenticity’ – think Paul McCartney’s home-recorded debut solo album, or Steely’s quite frightening levels of studio perfectionism.
Moving into its more complex second wave, dad-rock gets a bit messier to pin down: it’s less about a shared sound and more about its vaguer mentality – though the hulking guitar solos largely disappeared, the general themes stuck around. The National – who long resisted the label, but have since stopped caring – are peak dad-rock. They sing about growing older and mortality being inevitable, fearing the clichés of male middle-age while semi-ironically embodying some of them. 2007 song ‘Slow Show”s “Can I get a minute of not being nervous and not thinking of my dick?”, borne out of their specific and self-deprecating sense of humour, is possibly the most National lyric in the history of The National.
The War on Drugs, Fleet Foxes, Wilco and Bon Iver – who, let’s remind ourselves, built himself a literal cabin in the woods – are all archetypal staples of the genre. To be dad-rock is to be slightly uncool, and to bask in it contentedly. And usually, dad-rock records are made in some kind of hand-built wooden cabin – or if you’re The National, a converted 18th century barn, where they recorded 2017’s ‘Sleep Well Beast’.
And it is during this second, more brooding wave that dad-rock begins to lose me. At a certain point it all gets a bit ‘We get it, pal: you really like drinking wine, being vaguely mysterious and being left alone’.
In recent years, though, Jenny Lewis, Sheer Mag and Beth Ditto have done wonders for reinventing the best aspects of dad-rock (chugging riffs, yowled guitar solos, classic rock reference points). Like many dad-rockers before her, Swift has also pulled on her most durable flannel jacket and fled to the forest – in between (presumably) whittling tiny wooden animals with a penknife and collecting kindling, she made her sparest and most surprising record to date. But with ‘Folklore’, Taylor Swift is channelling dad-rock under a new, under-explored guise.
Comparisons to Lana Del Rey’s ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ are not wildly off the mark. Swift is also following the template set down by various ‘male geniuses’ who hid away to write their magnum opus, and is playfully twisting the myth of the isolation album to fit her own distinctive voice instead. ‘Cardigan’, especially, is quintessential Swift. This is the same woman, after all, who once wrote an entire song about a scarf (‘All Too Well’, from 2012’s ‘Red’). Tay Tay loves a textile metaphor.
At a time when the entire world is feeling particularly isolated, Swift’s own isolation-creation both romanticises, questions and pokes fun at the benefits of breaking away from civilisation. As well as enlisting The National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver’s Vernon – two figureheads of the genre – she plays with and then undercuts many of the leading tropes of previous albums made in solitude. Creaking swings in the woodland, dusty old cardigans shoved under the bed are all romanticised with a subtle smirk.
Even her boyfriend Joe Alwyn’s pre-fame job at the popular frozen dessert chain SNOG is painted with a knowing rose tint. “Teal was the colour of your shirt / When you were 16 at the yogurt shop / You used to work at to make a little money,” she imagines on ‘invisible string’. When Swift sings “it’s hard to be at a party when I feel like an open wound” on ‘this is me trying’, she summons up the alone-at-a-party melancholy of The National’s ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ and injects it with a hint of hopefulness atop spiralling strings and a hooky delivery: “at least I’m trying”. Nostalgia for a simpler past features heavily, and yet you sense that Swift is content where she is today. This is the peak essence of dad-rock, distilled.
And it makes sense, because ‘folklore’ is the sort of record that probably has an active Pinterest account, and a regular stream of embroidered wall-hangings ordered from Etsy arriving at its shabby-chic cottage door. It makes weekly batches of sourdough, and enjoys an ODDBOX subscription. Instead of ‘London Boy’s avid dedication to using Citymapper, ‘Folklore’ is more into wild swimming, orienteering and cottage-core.
To put simply: what a fitting energy to channel at a time when being alone indoors for extended periods of time (thanks, COVID-19) has made dad-rock icons of us all.