Pre-pandemic, few artists were so keenly attuned to the music industry’s calendar as Taylor Swift. She timed her album releases for awards contention and singles to sustain her world tours; the promotional cycle for 1989, released in 2014, seemed to go on for years. With coronavirus, that “circus” – as she puts it on Mirrorball, one of a few songs on her “quarantine album”, Folklore, that address the pandemic directly – was abruptly called off.
Stripped of those structures, “this lockdown could have been a time where I absolutely lost my mind”, Swift says in The Long Pond Studio Sessions, a film that explores the making and meaning of Folklore. Instead, in a matter of months, she created an album as good as any she has ever written. She collaborated remotely with the National’s Aaron Dessner, writing to his musical sketches and self-recording her performances at home.
With stadiums still closed, this film lets Swift take her bow, performing the album in full for the first time with co-producers Dessner and long-term collaborator Jack Antonoff. Swift says the pandemic offered a bit of a “release of the pressures” on her as a musician – a point underscored by the film’s setting, at Dessner’s picturesque cabin recording studio in upstate New York. Through cosy conversations round the fire pit, the image presented is of both an artist at ease and – with little to prove – at the peak of her power.
Swift’s songwriting bona fides have never been in question, but her eighth album presents this side of her in its purest form, not only in the speed of its creation but the absence of fanfare. Folklore reveals the potency of Swift’s songwriting: almost uncomfortably intimate, with an emotional tenor – wistfulness, bitterness, grief and love – that takes hold like quicksand. It is testament to her grasp on the shifting emotional tenor of the pandemic, underscored by her song-by-song commentary in the film. “It’s an album that allows you to feel your feelings, and it’s a product of isolation – it is a product of all this rumination on what we are as humans,” she says.
Yet specifics on her own “pandemic epiphanies” are elusive, even where it would have been relevant and edifying to address them. Swifties will be gratified that the mysterious “William Bowery”, a credited co-writer, is indeed Swift’s boyfriend, actor Joe Alwyn; and her research into her grandfather’s fight in the second world war will be quickly absorbed into her extensive lore. But regarding Mad Woman – widely interpreted as referencing her bitter feud with Scooter Braun over ownership of her masters, which she has repeatedly addressed – Swift speaks only vaguely of a recent situation involving a male aggressor “who is very guilty”. She seems almost choked with emotion when discussing This Is Me Trying, a song about someone struggling with addiction, yet talks in hazy outward projections.
At other points, Swift references times in her life when she has felt out of control or on the wrong side of fate, as if those moments – the feuds with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian – have not been highly public. The omissions seem coy, even a bit disingenuous, and reveal a limit to the film’s fire-lit glow of cosy intimacy and personal reflection and revelation. The circus may be shut down but, as Swift sings in Mirrorball, she remains on that tightrope, walking the line between disclosure and self-preservation.
• The Long Pond Studio Sessions is available on Disney+.