Thursday, August 6th, 2020

Taylor Swift – Cardigan

I need some fine wine, and you, you need to calm down…


Vikram Joseph: If releasing a gaudy outlier as a first single has become your calling card, what happens when you release an album so unexpectedly cohesive that no song is more than one standard deviation from the mean? “Cardigan” serves instead as a haunted, delicate gateway to Folklore, a wistful slow-burner on an album full of them. The piano hook is indelibly The National, the vocal cadences in the verse almost unbearably evocative of a Sufjan Stevens song I can’t quite name. It’s been a long time since Taylor Swift has sounded so patient. But none of the myriad influences that have been waved at “Cardigan” and Folklore over the past few days can obscure how intimately she inhabits these songs. For all of her genre-fluidity and sporadic affectations, she’s developed one of the most distinctive songwriting voices in pop; the soft surge of the final chorus, buried memories rising to the surface, could only be her. “Cardigan” is (probably) fiction, but it’s rooted in the specifics of vintage Taylor: old clothes, streetlights, smoke, nostalgia. As a first single from Folklore, it serves both as closure and prologue: the movie, unreeling, about to begin.

Lauren Gilbert: It’s Taylor’s best lead single since “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” it’s thematically appropriate for the album, and after “Look What You Made Me Do” and “ME!” it’s a relief to get an inoffensive I’ll-do-the-dishes-to-this-track. And yeah, that’s also the problem — it’s also better suited to being an album track that I’ll mostly skip in favor of that brilliant bridge on “illicit affairs” or the contained spite of “mad woman”. There are whispers of brilliance — the clack of heels on cobbles, “dancing in your Levis / drunk under a streetlight” — but they’re outweighed by the clunky cardigan metaphor and lyrics that don’t show that TSwift brilliance (“sensual politics”, really?). It sounds like just some indie record, and it’s not much better than hers — at least not Taylor at her best.

Thomas Inskeep: I’m not particularly a fan of Swift in pop mode — I find her too busy, too bombastic, and I mostly loathe Max Martin’s work — but I’ll never deny her way around a lyric. So getting to hear her songs in a different musical setting on Folklore is refreshing, and I really like her collaboration with The National’s Aaron Dessner. “Cardigan” isn’t close to my favorite on the album; its synthetic drums rub me the wrong way against the rest of its instrumentation. But those words — “when you are young they assume you know nothing” — and the way Swift sings them, yes. 

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: On a meta level, Taylor writing a song about something as trivial as a cardigan is kind of hilarious–but also, who hasn’t come across an ordinary object and suddenly felt the pangs of nostalgia and forgotten love? “Cardigan” crafts a decently compelling song around this narrative, although it ultimately feels a little too long and self-indulgent. Of her songs about articles of clothing, I much prefer the sultriness of “Dress,” or that fake-out moment in “Style” where she says “Takes me home/Lights are off/He’s taking off his coat.”

Alfred Soto: Conceits, whether by John Donne or Robert Forster, depend on the surprise generated by accuracy. A cardigan is such a specific article of clothing — genteel in its affect — that to compare herself to a cardigan doesn’t match the scenario she limns. Yet the sense of mounting doom created by violins and a smear of Mellotron, the court reporter’s self-control with which Taylor Swift goes from sharing a list of crimes to becoming the plaintiff: It’s chilling stuff, spookier than recent material by Aaron Dessner’s other band.

Iain Mew: The National’s back catalogue has many examples of this kind of rolling, nagging piano mood working to magnify the depth of feeling in ambiguous words. That’s a less-than-obvious fit for Taylor Swift, who doesn’t need the magnification. When she exchanges “when you are young they assume you know nothing” for “I knew everything when I was young,” it’s a precise moment of glory that feels wrong to be as constrained as it is. There are so many levels of meaning sliding out from “you put me on,” though, from the metaphorical trying on, to playing her record, to putting her on the spot, that the one line alone justifies the approach.

Jonathan Bradley: The twilit piano line murmuring beneath “Cardigan” is Swift’s announcement of Aaron Dessner as her comrade in Folklore, but the song is a demonstration of how she chooses her writing partners and why. This is a very Swiftian song, from its romance of artifacts and tableaux to its fairytale ending — in this case, Peter Pan — and Dessner’s role is to mark these elements as belonging to the world of The National, too. He is there because Taylor recognizes his ability to draw out ideas that exist in her own writing; perhaps she knows that Dessner’s band is familiar also with kissing in “cars and downtown bars,” and perhaps she knows the small space separating dancing “drunk under a streetlight,” a “heartbeat on the High Line,” and being mistaken for a stranger you pass under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights. (I once said that she “doesn’t play nice with the other kids,” but maybe that’s only the case when the meeting is agglutinative rather than collaborative.) This is the first Swift single that, like many others, I first heard as part of an album before I did as a standalone song, and so its role is different: it is here to suggest and to intimate rather than to command attention. Perhaps that’s why it melts away so well: a song that trickles back into darkness even as it builds to its quite practised climax. With it claiming its place at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 immediately on its release, it is surely one of the most cloistered pop songs to have taken that spot in a long time, more so even than the mini-trend of plaintive ballads that manifested towards the end of last year. Maybe that’s one of my favorite things about this song, and the record from which it comes: even as the whole world delights in it, it feels more than anything like it can be all mine. 

Alex Clifton: As soon as the first few piano chords start, chills run up and down my arms, and repeated listens haven’t dulled the thrill. Swift’s voice curls around each note in a way that follows me around for the remainder of the day; the production is an ocean of ghosts I’m willing to swim in forever. Listening to “Cardigan,” it’s like I’ve already had a lifetime of memories with this song. It conjures out of nothing, nostalgia for all the reckless loves I had when I was younger and memories I thought I’d forgotten. I’ve long been a Swift stan (in case that wasn’t stupidly obvious), but this song, and Folklore, have hit me on a deeper level than I expected. I’m in love.

Katherine St Asaph: I put off hearing this for so long. I am never going to be able to listen to a song that, upon being praised(!!!!!), resulted in hundreds of people deploying G*merg*te harassment tactics against colleagues; not without feeling ill. Nor am I cool with the other side of the Discourse, i.e., that enjoying the folky sound waves that comprise “Cardigan” is deluded in such a way that enjoying the similar folky sound waves of a no-name coffeeshop songwriter is not, because the former’s apparently part of a diabolical boardroom plan (as if only pop stars have PR, or the kids are still marketed to by besuited boomers, rather than 28-year-old Steak-umms heirs reposting 4chan shitposts) to make Swift seem “indie,” the only way to fall within the coverage window of… which press outlet, exactly? (Why is a Serious Principled Label parroting Blind Gossip?) But I don’t usually enjoy these sound waves. I’m not enthused about Swift’s “The Man” of the Woods and don’t love The National, though this sounds more like Colbie Caillat. The central conceit was forced enough when it was feeling like a plastic bag, and it’s not improved as a bag from the Sparrow rack at Anthropologie, full of glurge and shapeless knits. (The cardigan has inevitably been defictionalized, and has turned me into Regina George.) So it is a surprise, if not exactly pleasant, that I don’t hate this. Taylor’s still assembling songs from Taylor Swift Phrases like prefab scrapbook patches, still Thought Cataloguing her way through NYC. (Has there been a single point since the High Line was built, not counting quarantine but I wouldn’t be shocked, when it was empty enough of tourists to feel a distinct heartbeat, or to do anything but mill forward like cattle?) As usual, the song is massively sheltered about what constitutes a bad boy — my 68-year-old mother is considering getting a tattoo — and wildly optimistic about the chances they’ll stop chasing new thrills. The one hint at potential complication — being saved/faved while feeling like an old cardigan under someone’s bed, i.e., maybe not yours or his– goes unacknowledged, making me suspect it isn’t a hint at all but bad songwriting. But while “Cardigan” remains unexciting, it’s at least pleasantly layered, an upgrade from flat beige to soft autumn cottagecore. (It’s also, after “City of Stars,” the second song lately to remind me of Lisa Hannigan.) Too bad listening to it makes me feel sick. Look what you made me do.

Hannah Jocelyn: I take no pleasure in reporting how sick I am of Folklore: the discourse, the stan attacks, and the songs themselves. I quickly wore out “Exile” and “Betty,” which are some of her best songs. People who loved Swift most when she embraced her worst instincts — the Reputation defenders confuse me — or went shiny pop — the 1989 haters do too — have also turned their back on her here, not unfoundedly. This inexplicable choice for a single sounds like a rough draft of “Light Years” meeting a rough draft of “Wildest Dreams,” and rarely more. (Think Girl Talk, but more like Man Whimper.) That’s not the point, though — the lyrics are. The in-joke with the Swifties is that she made an album of Track 5s; “leaving like a father/running like water” is one of her best one-liners, and it’s not even the climax of the song like “so casually cruel in the name of being honest” was. The way she uses the cardigan and Levi’s is like her T-shirts shorthand. Folklore has lots of these Easter eggs. They’re a payoff, a confirmation that it was worth investing time in Swift, making her music inextricable from her followers. Swift has intertwined her career with fan interaction, with chart obsession, with genre shifts as canny business moves, and the stans have evolved from passionate publicists to old-fashioned record executives. The song could be a note-for-note cover of “Sugar Wife,” but if the Metacritic score is high enough, and if the song is successful on streaming and radio (a format they may not even listen to), they won. Why should I care about how a song makes me feel if the loudest component of its target audience barely does? This could be just a lovely, if slight, ballad, but nothing is ever “just” anything with Swift; the songs don’t matter so much as their success. You play stupid games and you lose stupid prizes, then you place a hex on the teen working the carnival. That’s how the line goes, right?

Tobi Tella: Taylor Swift is a highly self-centered artist, not in a way that reflects ego but a hyper-awareness of her perception. Every album since 1989 has had multiple songs dealing and toying with how she’s perceived in the public eye, and those that don’t are mostly straightforwardly about her, Relatable Rich Pop Superstar Taylor Swift. I don’t think “Cardigan” is perfect; the production is nice but never moves anywhere beyond that — a problem the whole album has — and the cardigan line itself is a little hokey. But there’s something so fresh about it. Even without knowing the intended story, the experience is different and visceral compared to her past music. A whole world of more interesting perspectives is opened when she looks outside herself, and it’s a step that I wish was taken long ago.

Reader average: [8.44] (54 votes)

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2 Responses to “Taylor Swift – Cardigan”

  1. I love the melodies and lyrics on Folklore. But why on earth did they make the production so damn flat and uninspired? There’s next to nothing going on in many of the tracks.

  2. Will this be the least controversial Taylor Swift single? And the one with the fewest blergs???