A week ago, the Taylor Swift fandom was living in ignorant bliss. It’s been just 11 months since her seventh studio album, Lover, was released and we had reluctantly come to terms with the idea that we may not see her tour for another 12. If you searched hard enough you could find a handful of grumbles over the fact that Swift hadn’t posted anything on social media in some time, but there had otherwise been a calm sense of resignation that Taylor Swift was simply taking the global lockdown as an opportunity to focus on herself and her family.
That’s why, on Thursday at around 1:15pm, when the announcement came through from Swift herself via Instagram and Twitter that she had secretly written and recorded her eighth studio album, folklore – an album that would be released in just 15 hours – the collective shock (and screams and tears) that rippled worldwide was authentic, endearing and, above all else, fuelled by pure, unadulterated emotion.
For the next 15 hours, fans anxiously awaited the newly promised music video for the album’s first single, cardigan, and what would transpire to be an album full of whimsical and thought-provoking songs that are not just monumental for Swift’s career, but for her fans, too.
During this short yet agonising period of waiting, we discovered that Swift had not only once again collaborated with longtime friend and co-writer / producer, Jack Antonoff, but also The National’s Aaron Dessner – whose influence you can find on 11 of the 16 tracks, having been heavily involved in the writing and production process. Upon learning this, fans of both Swift and The National instantly speculated about what was to come, easily sensing how the subdued yet intricate rock that defines The National’s sound could seamlessly filter into Swift’s more acoustic nature and lyrical prowess.
For those not familiar with The National, the album’s name itself – folklore – suggested ethereal fairy tales nestling comfortably on a bed of sparkling country, indie, or folk music. Swift’s 2012 folk collaboration with The Civil Wars, Safe and Sound, was mentioned enough to see it trending on Twitter, highlighting what fans were expecting with this sepia-toned surprise.
What came at 5am UK time (alarms eagerly set for 4:55am, of course) was all we’d hoped for, and then some. While our theories certainly hit the mark – a biased fan might say folklore is a contender for indie folk-rock-pop album of an entire generation – there was more to this album than anyone other than Swift and her collaborators could have guessed.
folklore feels reminiscent of 2010’s Speak Now in that it so wondrously combines fiction with reality, Swift pulling from her real-life experiences, combining memories with a fabricated narrative to create an entire universe outside of your own. For the most part, however, the similarities end there, as this is Swift 10 years older. It’s Swift at her most mature and most honest, her life experiences over the past decade having provided her with more insight to the world than ever before, her musical influences expanded, and her voice stronger and more diverse than we could ever have expected back in 2010. You’d be forgiven, for example, for thinking the first verse of seven – a track that touches on a child having their innocence stripped away at a young age – was sung by a feature artist, rather than Swift herself, and the control she maintains when reaching for both the highest and lowest points of her vocal range is beyond anything she’s achieved before.
“It’s Swift at her most mature and most honest, her life experiences over the past decade having provided her with more insight to the world than ever before”
Swift has previously been criticised for a lack of sonic cohesion – RED, reputation and Lover, for example, all unapologetically pulled from conflicting genres – but that’s one criticism that cannot be maintained for folklore. From the first notes of opening track the 1 – filled with regret and wistful ‘what ifs’ – to the fade out in closing track, hoax – a depiction of a devastating and bitter end to a toxic love story – you’re taken on one seamless journey. This record tells a story that transcends any given time period, making it a timeless piece of art that sees fact interwoven with imagination, each track expressed with conviction – a believable story despite its fabrication.
It’s this conviction that makes folklore so emotional. While the most dedicated fans will be able to separate Swift’s dreams and imagination from her real-life experiences, she sells these stories as her own, tapping into each character with ease. Her ability to convey the innermost feelings of fictional characters, even when she hasn’t experienced them herself, is an admirable skill – one that many songwriters will never achieve.
The strongest example of this is seen in the handful of tracks that involve what Swift describes as a ‘love triangle’ – four tracks written from the three different perspectives of one teenage love affair. The first of these is cardigan, the album’s first single, and is told from the perspective of the girlfriend. We’re taken on a rollercoaster of memories that guide us through her relationship – through the initial joy of falling in love, the devastation of learning the truth and, finally, the relief she feels when her love comes back to her. This story is delivered through Taylor’s smooth-as-silk voice, and it’s the first real taste of her collaboration with Dessner – The National’s influence is clear throughout.
The second of these tracks, august, expresses the bittersweetness that comes with being the ‘other woman’ – the narrator always knowing that however much she wants this, her temporary lover has never, and will never, really belong to her. This point of view is delivered almost jovially, despite the story itself being anything but happy, as she sees her short-lived romance drift away along with the summer sun. Swift is known for her bridges and folklore is full of them, but none are so powerful as that in august – and as it sits among its 15 equally strong peers (make no mistake, there isn’t a bad song on this record), it shines just that little bit brighter as a result.
This story continues in illicit affairs, a song from the same point of view as august, in which the narrator sadly sings of the secrets and the tiptoeing around and – ultimately – the anger when the affair inevitably falls apart, before concluding with betty – an apology reminiscent of the one Swift describes in 1989’s How You Get the Girl. It’s naive, innocent, and cheeky message is delivered by a 30-year-old country Swift, complete with country twang – a track that old-school Swift fans will find themselves treasuring most. The beauty of these intertwined chapters is that they’re written with such certitude that you feel empathy for all three of the characters involved regardless of who was in the wrong, Swift’s storytelling so strong that you feel for just a few minutes that you yourself are part of this chronicle.
While these four songs tell one story that, for the most part, feels separate from the rest of the record, they still fit perfectly with the remaining 12 tracks. this is me trying, for example – a song that takes us back to Lover’s Afterglow in that it seems to be Swift herself apologising for her wrongdoings in her relationship – also references standing in the front porch light, apologising, which could easily be a nod to the doorway apology in cardigan. Since Swift wasn’t able to drop easter eggs in the lead up to the record as she usually would, these lyrical references are playing that part, giving fans more to delve into. Sonically, each track lends itself easily to the next, the subdued yet magical sound either sitting heavy on your heart, or causing a lightness akin to a feather caught in the wind, happily floating wherever the gentle breeze takes you – each song one part of an entire lifetime of sensations.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Taylor Swift album without some devastating heartbreak, and what better sound to help Swift tell such stories than this mellow folk-rock? The first real taste of this comes with exile, Swift’s collaboration with the magnificent Bon Iver and a track that sonically takes you right back to 2012 and RED’s collaboration with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody on The Last Time. At face value, this moody track is about the end of a relationship, but on further inspection, it could also be referring to Swift’s disenchantment with the USA, or even her break up with Big Machine Records and her move to a new ‘land’ – Universal Music Group.
Similarly, the infamously vulnerable track five, my tears ricochet – written in this instance solely by Swift – seems to have a double meaning, too. Again, at face value, it suggests a single subject turning up to mourn someone they mistreated, but as with exile, this could equally be referring to Big Machine Records and the ‘death’ of the ‘old Taylor’ as depicted in 2017’s comeback single, Look What You Made Me Do. The equivocacy of these tracks allows listeners to derive their own meaning, as well as providing a subtle insight into Swift’s numerous battles from over the past few years, highlighting just how smart Swift’s songwriting is.
The serene and melancholy manner in which both exile and my tears ricochet are delivered suggests only sadness as opposed to the underlying anger – a tactic you’ll find implemented throughout the entire album – and it’s only upon further inspection that you’ll find more layers to peel back as you read further into the lyrics. The multifaceted nature of folklore means that it has longevity, since beyond the pretty lyrics and mystical music, there are deeper messages to be uncovered and the chances of ever tiring of any one of these tracks are slim as a result.
It’s because of this ambiguity that tracks initially appearing to refer to heartbreak fit in so well thematically with tracks that address Swift’s experience in the public eye, and how that has affected people’s perspective of her. This theme seems to flow directly on from reputation, particularly with the Jack Antonoff collaboration mirrorball – where we’re once more privy to Swift’s past tendency to mould herself into the person everyone expected her to be – and mad woman – a satirical comment on the world’s perception of not just Swift but women in general, and another nod to her feud with Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun. mad woman in particular is haunting both in theme and in sound, highlighting the sinister way women are portrayed to be ‘crazy’ and the very real impact this can have on their lives. Again, Swift’s anger is disguised in her calm delivery of these lyrics and the soft musical accompaniment, making it somehow even more powerful than if she were to scream and shout and stamp her feet (see: 2017’s I Did Something Bad).
This is expanded on somewhat in the last great american dynasty, in which Swift recounts past opinions of Rebekah Harkness – a woman who once owned Swift’s Rhode Island home and who was depicted as a woman who ‘had a marvellous time ruining everything’. That is, of course, until Swift herself purchased the ‘Holiday House’ and took over as the subject of people’s judgement. It’s a track that will find you wanting to throw on a fancy dress and spin around with your arms spread wide, shrugging off any rumour that’s ever been told about you because you’re just too damn busy being fabulous.
As we learnt in reputation’s Dancing With Our Hands Tied, Swift has a crippling fear that this often negative public perception of her will affect the success of any and all of her personal relationships, particularly that of a romantic nature, and this fear is once again voiced in penultimate track peace. You can hear the concern in Swift’s voice as she vocalises her worries and once more we’re reminded of The Lucky One from RED, wherein she discusses the concept of removing yourself from the public eye in favour of an easy life. Through all the break up songs and the accompanying heartbreak, it’s the sadness that comes with this fear that’s the hardest to swallow as you realise Swift doesn’t often believe, even now, that anyone could love her unconditionally through the dramatics that can often monopolise her life.
That’s why, then, invisible string is so indescribably heartwarming, as you learn that Swift feels her current relationship was always meant to be, and that whatever path she had chosen to follow, this one golden string would always have tied them inexplicably together. It’s the happiest song on the record, and the only one that comes without a caveat of any kind, highlighting her certainty when it comes to this particular love. Swift once said that the ukulele is the happiest sounding instrument, which perfectly explains why it’s so prominent in this track and why you can’t help feeling wonderfully jolly and hopeful, even in the song’s wake.
Through the ups and the downs of this record, it’s easy to forget that it was borne out of the current global pandemic, without which many of these songs likely wouldn’t exist. Swift nods to this in epiphany, where she addresses the strange reality of our lives today (holding hands through plastic) and its haunting parallels with the frontline of the war where her grandfather served. While this track seems like the only direct comment on the pandemic, the number 20 appears numerous times throughout the album – 20 minutes, 20 years, roaring twenties… – which is perhaps Swift’s way of honouring the year 2020 and the part it has played in the crafting of this album. The hymnal track could easily be translated into prayer – again, fitting given the sometimes hopelessness that surrounds the current circumstances and the idea of wishing for some peace through sleep.
“The real beauty of this album, though, is that it’s perfectly open to interpretation and it lends itself to multiple repeat listens in order to uncover every subtle piece of this complex puzzle.”
To do folklore the justice it deserves would be to write an in-depth track-by-track, covering each and every potential meaning (of which there are many), every note, every instrument… and even then, there would still be more to say – more to unfold. The real beauty of this album, though, is that it’s perfectly open to interpretation and it lends itself to multiple repeat listens in order to uncover every subtle piece of this complex puzzle. While Swift’s mind works in a very specific way, she writes with intentional ambiguity, allowing the listener to take from it whatever they may need in that moment. It’s partly this that makes folklore so accessible to so many, and also what has helped catalyse Swift’s career to seemingly boundless heights.
While everything Taylor Swift has released up until this point has been commendable in its own right, there is something about the whimsy and unexpectedness of folklore that makes it all the more special. In a time where there is a distinct lack of magic in most of our lives, Swift has given us just that – an escape from a brutal reality – and folklore will undoubtedly forever be considered the album that made 2020 just that little bit more sparkly.
Listen to folklore: