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Into the Mild: Taylor Swift, Bon Iver, and the Myth of the Isolation Album

The cottagecore aesthetic of ‘Folklore’ fits it neatly into the lineage of musical exile narratives, both good and bad. It’s a story we love to indulge in—even if it rarely gets at the true meaning of being alone.  

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 2011, a 27-year-old musician named Tom Ruskin split from Chicago, frustrated with what his life had become. He wanted to get away from the city—from the struggle, from the noise, from the girlfriend who had just dumped him—and out of the creative rut he’d been stuck in. The music career just wasn’t working, so he said to hell with it and headed to a cabin in the backwoods of Illinois. When he left, pretty much all he had with him was an acoustic guitar, a few extra packs of strings, and a four-track recording device. The stage was set to make his masterpiece.

Tom Ruskin’s music never did reach the audiences he was hoping, because Tom Ruskin is the fictional subject of the Onion article “Man Just Going to Grab Guitar and Old Four-Track, Go Out to Cabin in Woods, Make Shittiest Album Anyone’s Ever Heard.” But you were with me for a few sentences because this tale is as well trod in the music world as the Appalachian Trail.

The most deliberate touchstone for Ruskin, of course, is Justin Vernon, whose first album as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago, was put together with more or less the same map as our Onion protagonist. (Vernon was feeling broken in 2006, dealing with a bout of heartbreak in addition to a bout of mononucleosis, so he went to his father’s hunting cabin in remote Wisconsin, where he made the record that vaulted him to stardom.) Stories like his are enduring for understandable reasons: They’re romantic, they’re dramatic, they’re about taking control of your own life back when you feel like you’ve lost it. They’re basically Jerry Maguire walk-out scenes for musicians.

So it’s no wonder Vernon showed up on Folklore, Taylor Swift’s wistful walk into the woods released this past Friday. Vernon most notably cowrote and sings on the duet “Exile,” but his presence feels less relevant to the song itself and more tied to the promotional imagery of the project at large. With an album cover featuring a black-and-white photo of Swift alone in a thicket of trees, pensively staring into the distance, and a lead music video that starts off with her alone in a cabin, playing a worn piano next to a fire, it’s clear what vibe she was going for. Enlisting Vernon for a supporting role in a project like this is like getting Pacino to cameo in your mob movie.

It’s hard to hold a savvy marketing strategy against Swift, and first reviews and reactions are proof enough that this angle was, in fact, just what the doctor ordered, career-wise, particularly after the bombastic letdown of 2017’s Reputation and the cotton-candy shrug of 2019’s Lover, both of which won—gasp—zero Grammys. (Folklore is such a sure bet for Album of the Year at the 2021 Grammys that I’ll eat Werner Herzog’s shoe if it doesn’t win.) Musically, it’s an undeniably charming album, and with the overarching sonic influence of the National’s Aaron Dessner, who produced and cowrote much of the music, it’s catnip for a more indie-inclined group of listeners who want something easy to digest during a stomach-churning summer.

But as far as neo-transcendentalist packaging goes, there’s legitimate criticism to be made of framing a major label production, with superstar producers and collaborators, alongside a series of lyric videos of blinking lighthouses and figures walking alone on dirt paths. It’s at best a bit silly, at worst straight-up manipulative—and it’s further proof that the most significant obstacle Taylor Swift has yet to hurdle is her unwavering basicness. She didn’t have to go Method and start hunting her own food for the angle to feel sincere, but when you make an album predominantly from your L.A. mansion, featuring a song about one of your other mansions, it’s going to feel a bit hollow.

To be sure, though, Swift isn’t the first—and definitely will not be the last—to get caught in between her means and her message. Just within the past few years, Justin Timberlake and Kanye West both made the consensus worst-reviewed albums of their careers by releasing their “I’m retreating from the terrors of celebrity to the comforts of nature” albums, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. People can see through the act, especially in the Instagram era, which allows fans to know all too well what kind of lifestyle people like Timberlake and West actually live, as opposed to the one they want to play dress-up for during precisely one corporate-strategized album cycle. For major label artists, at least, if you swing and miss with this kind of approach, you’ll whiff so hard you’ll fall on your ass.

Even in a pandemic, meditative isolation is an inherently corny and privileged narrative to assign yourself. Part of the reason it felt genuine for Justin Vernon was that he was a nobody when he made For Emma, Forever Ago, and didn’t even intend to release the album at first. (Friends insisted he did, and eventually Jagjaguwar gave it a proper release.) Possibly the greatest isolation album, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, rang true despite Springsteen’s massive success and resources partially because of the fact that it was initially intended to be demos for a full-band album. It was only after the E Street Nebraska sessions didn’t feel right that Springsteen and producer/manager Jon Landau realized the home-recorded Tascam PortaStudio tapes were the thing to release. (Quick side note: @Springsteen please release the full-band Nebraska recordings thank you.)

But where’s the line between authentic and phony in this conversation? And who can be the judge? Are albums like Skip Spence’s Oar (largely written while Spence was in a mental institution) or Nick Drake’s Pink Moon (written as he drifted into poverty, mental illness, and despair) any less credible as isolation albums because they were ultimately recorded in studios? Does Whitney’s Light Upon the Lake fit the bill if the band never really were alone at the cabin where they wrote it, and had each other’s company the whole time?

Looking at the other side of that same coin, consider a work that perhaps has the inaccurate reputation of being an isolation album: Elliott Smith’s self-titled 1995 album, which is being reissued next month by Kill Rock Stars for its 25th anniversary. Primarily recorded in the Portland basement of a friend, and known for containing one of the bleakest songs ever recorded in “Needle in the Hay,” it’s understandable why people associate this album—and Smith at large—with the image of the loner locked in a room, dramatically writing sad bastard music as a means to get away from it all.

But at this point in his life, Smith was still very much stable and in control. The drug metaphors he was singing about in songs like “The White Lady Loves You More” were still mainly just that—metaphors—and he was in a dedicated relationship with photographer JJ Gonson, who took the shot used for the album cover. He wasn’t solemnly crafting his art at the top of Mount Hood; instead, he was actually known to casually write his songs while watching TV.

Smith was certainly not free of the demons that would later destroy him, and his band Heatmiser was indeed on the verge of breaking up—but he wasn’t alone in this era either. It’s hard to reconcile this idea with a dark song like “Single File,” and yet you can sense the relative happiness in archival interviews and ephemera, like pictures of Heatmiser and friends goofing around at Disneyland in 1994. The sound of Elliott Smith is simply not that of someone desperately trying to separate himself from the world, even if it might really, really seem like it when juxtaposed with a scene of Luke Wilson cutting his wrists in The Royal Tenenbaums.

The fact is Smith’s musical ambitions were much more grand than locking himself in his friend’s basement and playing an acoustic guitar. He idolized the Beatles, and the first chance he got he took major label money and made lush, instrument-heavy studio albums like XO and Figure 8. As his life unraveled, he produced full-tilt rock songs like “L.A.,” and rearranged songs like “Needle in the Hay” to be performed live in this style as well. But his reputation was already locked in. People wanted him to be the isolation artist more than he wanted to be that artist himself.

In 1977, a 35-year-old musician named Mossy Kilcher decided to self-release her homemade folk songs about living in the Alaskan wilderness—and I promise you I’m not pulling your leg this time. Kilcher’s story is larger than life, but it is true: The child of Yule Kilcher, a Swiss expat who helped make Alaska a state and eventually served in its senate, Mossy was raised in a family homestead outside of the city of Homer, largely separated from the non-natural world. For decades she was one of Alaska’s only female ranchers, and to this day she maintains a homestead lifestyle, running a farm where she takes guests on extended horseback trips. (Notably, her niece is the musician Jewel, and her family is featured in the Discovery Channel reality show Alaska: The Last Frontier.)

Folk music was something Kilcher was brought up taking part in, not as a potential vehicle for stardom or Grammys or mansions but as a way to connect with family, nature, and herself. At one point she took her songs to a studio, the result of which became that self-released 1977 collection, Northwind Calling, an album recently reissued by the label Tompkins Square. But she hated the experience of working in a studio—and of being condescended to by the engineer working with her—and ultimately chose to give up pursuing any formal path to being a career artist. “I was a nervous wreck,” Kilcher told The New York Times this month of recording in a studio. “It was intense beyond belief, something I never wanted to do again.”

Kilcher’s music stands out today because of its virtuousness—its remote origins, its raw, uncommercial nature—and her story gets at an uncomfortable truth that people don’t generally want to acknowledge, which is that these “cabin in the woods” narratives are almost always based on a foundation of lifestyle tourism. They are usually so far from the reality of true solitude, like that of enduring entire winters year after year in near-total seclusion with your family, that it borders on embarrassing.

One fact that gets highlighted every now and again about Henry David Thoreau is that, during his stay at Walden Pond, his mother would often do his laundry. There’s been some worthwhile defenses of Thoreau’s credibility on this issue, but no matter how you cut it, details like these are effective at wiping away the artifice of “roughing it” that’s often associated with the transcendentalists, as well as their modern-day equivalents in artists like Justin Vernon. (It’s worth pointing out that Vernon’s father brought him cheese, eggs, and beer every 10 days or so during his stay in the family cabin.)

The practical bottom line of trying to survive off the land, particularly in a ruthless place like Kilcher’s Alaska, is that it’s actually not something that pairs with the act of making art. For the most part it’s enough of a struggle just to find food to eat, as Christopher McCandless found out when he died in the Alaskan wilderness after living there for about four months, a saga chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild.

In Sean Penn’s 2007 film adaptation of the book, McCandless is generously depicted, with several of his key mistakes more or less left out. This includes the fatal error of having not brought a detailed map of the area with him, which could have helped him find a hand-operated tram available just a quarter mile from where he was unable to re-cross a river back to safety. (Finding the river rushing, McCandless instead decided to turn back and return to his now-mythical bus shelter. Within weeks he died of apparent starvation.)

People love that movie—and they love its soundtrack, too, which was almost entirely written and performed by Eddie Vedder, sounding like something he might’ve made alone in a cabin somewhere. People also just love McCandless’s story in general, to the degree that Alaskan park authorities recently had to remove his bus from the wilderness because people were getting killed trying to find it. There’s something elementally magnetic about this fantasy of leaving civilization behind, and whether it’s a fantasy rooted in anything resembling practicality or self-awareness seems to have nothing to do with it.

Taylor Swift using a back-to-nature visual template for Folklore, an album that is basically in no way actually about nature, says far less about Taylor Swift the person and far more about Taylor Swift the product. That’s fine, because a capitalistic promotion of the outdoors is still an endorsement of something that’s worth promoting no matter the motive. And I don’t doubt that she really does want to escape back to nature sometimes, away from superstar expectations, away from her political responsibility as a public figure, away from the paparazzi, who follow her even when she’s just trying to go on a hike with her boyfriend. If given the opportunity, who wouldn’t want to crack a beer with Justin Vernon in a cabin and make some music, even if it turned out to be the shittiest album anyone’s ever heard?

“Please picture me in the weeds,” Swift sings on the new song “Seven.” “Before I learned civility / I used to scream ferociously / Any time I wanted.”

Nate Rogers is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Billboard, and elsewhere.