There likely will not be a more aptly titled album this year than Taylor Swift’s folklore. The record, Taylor’s eighth studio album, was announced just sixteen hours before its release. The word “folklore” means “the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth” (Oxford Languages). Taylor’s folklore is an intricately woven tapestry of seemingly disparate narratives and stories. Created in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, folklore explores the story of Rebekah Harkness (the previous owner of Taylor’s Rhode Island mansion), a fictional teenage love triangle, and Taylor’s own personal evolution inside and outside of her romantic relationships. Nevertheless, folklore is symbolic of a greater and more important narrative — Taylor’s career and musical transformation.
Taylor has been one of the successful music acts in the world for over a decade, but even the greats begin to see a decline. Lover (2019) and reputation (2017) were both big sellers that housed multiple successful singles, but neither of the records reached the massive peaks of Fearless (2010), Red (2012), or 1989 (2014). Most of the decline wasn’t Taylor’s fault, particularly the performance of Lover. In actuality, the softer commercial reception of her latest mainstream pop albums is indicative of a harsh and unfair truth: Pop music continues to be hostile to female artists as they approach age 30. We’ve seen it with Katy Perry recently. Once a female artist hits that age, Top 40 rushes to replace them with a shiny new star. Lover‘s album campaign was overshadowed by big singles and albums from a new class of pop stars: Lil Nas X, Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello, Billie Eilish, etc. In the face of this, folklore is a smart, conscious, and inevitable pivot to a sound that Taylor has been working towards for her entire career. The album dives headfirst into folk and alternative music with small dips into soft rock and alternative country. The melodies are still largely rooted in mainstream pop music, but the instrumentation, vocal choices, mixing, and overall production are markedly more left field than Taylor’s “Shake It Off” days. The new album features longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff (Lana Del Rey, The Chicks) and new talents such as Grammy winners Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner of The National. Folklore is a new chapter in Taylor’s illustrious career — a pop titan finished with the pop game who is determined to remind us that her talent transcends trends and genre.
Unlike reputation and “Look What You Made Me Do,” a new Taylor didn’t have to be announced with pomp and circumstance on folklore. Instead, from the piano intro and opening line (“I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit”), “the 1” immediately introduces a new Taylor Swift. The song imagines an alternate reality where she makes a life with an ex-lover. With this song as folklore‘s introduction it sets up the possibility of other realities being centered on Taylor. Could she be a part of the teenage love triangle? Is she casting herself as Rebekah in this story? Or are these alternate realities evaluating her major career choices pre-folklore? “The 1” can be extrapolated in a million different directions, but Taylor’s emotive vocal performance anchors the track along with the lush string arrangement.
The following song, “cardigan,” plays multiple roles on the album. First and foremost, the track acts as the lead single for the album. More importantly, however, is that “cardigan” is the first song of the Teenage Love Triangle narrative that Taylor explained in a livechat ahead of the premiere of the official music video for “cardigan.” From the first few listens, it is clear why “cardigan” was chosen as the first radio single for the album. The track has that classic Taylor sound — a picturesque love song built on a foundation of earthy guitar chords. The familiar subject matter and sound gain some reinforcements through the layered background vocals in the bridge and final chorus. Lyrically, she sets the stage for the love triangle with key phrases that reappear throughout the record: “A friend to all is a friend to none/Chase two girls, lose the one.” In spite of all of this, the cardigan metaphor proves to a be a tad clunky, especially because the disco ball metaphor on “mirrorball” is much more effective. Nonetheless, “cardigan” is a worthy opener to the love triangle. The other two tracks in that narrative arc are “betty” and “august.” The former is an absolutely stunning look at how Taylor’s mindset and lyricism has evolved over the course of her career. In the past, Taylor has taken a relatively one-note approach to infidelity, but on folklore she tackles the subject with nuance and grace across multiple tracks. “Betty,” is a harmonica-led midtempo that tells a story about a boy named James who cheated on his girlfriend. We find out the details of the affair in “august,” but “betty” focuses on the specific kind of yearning and pleading that comes too late in the game of love. The song’s lyrics of innocence, “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything,” are reminiscent of lyrics in “seven,” “mad woman,” and “cardigan” — three songs from different narrative threads that are ultimately tied together by their exploration of maturation and innocence. “Betty” is one of the poppier moments on folklore with a bubbly final chorus and key change that is similar to one of Taylor’s modern classics: “Love Story.” Finally, there’s “august,” the last song in this narrative. Immediately, this track screams the number 8. It’s the eighth track on Taylor’s eight studio album and it’s named after the eighth month of the year. In numerology, the number 8 represents balance and, interestingly, “august” is all about the disruption of balance. The lust soft rock number describes a summer fling gone south. The affair detailed in the song intentionally imbalances the relationship and power dynamic between James and Betty. At times, the melody recalls some of Taylor and Jack’s best pop-rock confections (“Out of the Woods” and “I Wish You Would”); they have a knack for melodically representing the unraveling of a person’s inner balance in the face of relationship woes.
As aforementioned, maturation and innocence are two of folklore‘s central themes. They have been the driving themes behind much of Taylor’s songwriting in her career thus far, but her exploration of the concepts through these different narratives exacerbate her already impressive skill. On “illicit affairs,” she handles infidelity with a newfound nuance in a similar way to “betty.” The most interesting part of the track, aside from the “dwindling mercurial high” lyric, is the way she bends the melody to emphasize certain words. It’s especially apparent in the second verse when she upticks on “high” and “man” to symbolize the dangerous thrill of an affair. This is a gut punch of a song and perhaps the best showcase, outside of the Enya-esque “epiphany,” of Taylor’s growth in making vocal choices that tell the story just as effectively as her lyrics do. “This is me trying” leans into a murky sort of orchestral pop (seriously, the string arrangements are the best thing on this record) that is as melancholic as the title suggests. The vocal production and mixing on this track are very interesting; Taylor almost sounds like she is underwater, stifled under the pressure of taking accountability and responsibility. “Seven,” a reflection on the bright-eyed innocence and naïveté of childhood, is a small moment of purity on album that is chiefly concerned with the dark residue of the world on a human doing her best to make something for herself. On an album of standouts, “exile” and “peace” shine extra bright. The former is a deeply emotional collaboration with Bon Iver, the album’s sole duet. The song is a conversation between two ex-lovers post-separation; lyrically, the song is split between the two different perspectives and Bon Iver’s gruff deep tone is juxtaposed against Taylor’s lighter tone to add some texture to the story. The song begins as a somber piano ballad and turns into a direct back-and-forth in the bridge, but the most intriguing part is the chorus. Taylor is no stranger to anthemic choruses, and “exile’s” chorus is no different… but this doesn’t feel like a song that should have an explosive chorus. That discomfort only adds to the myriad emotions coursing through the veins of the song. The latter, “peace,” is yet another ballad that sees Taylor realizing that peace in her current relationship is only achievable once she is at peace with herself and her own shortcomings as a lover.
The most “factual” narrative on folklore outside of Taylor’s own life is the story of Rebekah Harkness. In 2013, Taylor bought the Harkness House, a grand Rhode Island mansion. A composer herself, Rebekah finds herself to be the source material for the most interesting and revelatory narrative that folklore has to offer. Beginning with “the last american dynasty,” one of her most well-written songs to date, Taylor introduces Rebekah and her story. Taylor sings of how the town projected their fears and insecurities onto Rebekah; they characterize her as destructive entity that is to blame for her husband’s death and thus the decline of the last great American dynasty. Besides the funeral and death imagery reoccurring in the gorgeous “my tears ricochet,” this story is all too familiar. The gossip and rumors surrounding Rebekah are not too far from the nastiest pieces of slander that have hounded Taylor throughout her career. This line of thinking is further proven by the switch from third-person omniscient narration to first-person in the final chorus. Taylor directly references her purchase of the mansion and likens her own soirées to the parties thrown by Rebekah in the past. By the outro, Taylor is singing in a higher register — a direct contrast to the lower one that she opted for earlier tin the song. Taylor effectively merges her story with Rebekah’s. For the purposes of folklore and folklore, the two women are intrinsically connected. The story continues on “mad woman,” a song whose title alone recalls Taylor’s notorious reputation album. Remember: on “the last great american dynasty” Rebekah was called “the maddest woman this town had ever seen.” With Mumford and Sons-esque instrumentation, Taylor goes for a smoky menacing vocal delivery to underscore the fact that her anger and fury is warranted. To hell with youth and innocence, this is the woman that world has forced her, and Rebekah, to become in order to survive.
Folklore is an effortless victory for Taylor Swift. This is an album that reminds fans of why they fell in love with her: rich storytelling, universal truths delivered on a whim, and melodies just sweet enough to hide the bitter edge to some of the lyrics. At the same time, folklore is pivot to a new stage in her commercial career, but also a new level of her artistry. The album does drag a bit towards the end, but that lull in momentum is to be anticipated when working through an hour-long folk album. Taylor has essentially created three sprawling simultaneous concept albums that trace the route of her own relationship with herself, the music industry, and the concept of celebrity. People will liken the songwriting and sound of the album to Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Jewel, Sheryl Crow, Enya, etc. While all of those influences are there, this is a distinctly Taylor Swift record that is building on a foundation she set from her debut and most freely explored on Red and 1989. Folklore is Taylor’s best and most expansive album; a record that is vast enough to include a roster of different characters for the idle minds in pandemic lockdown. After two less-than-stellar projects, Taylor is back in top shape. She has truly crafted her own folklore: stories that simultaneously serve as parallels to her own life and windows into her deepest fears and desires. We’ll be unpacking folklore for years to come.
Key Tracks: “exile” | “the 1” | “mad woman” | “illicit affairs” | “this is me trying”