Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’ Is Her Magnum Opus

To name something is to breathe life into it. By naming her eighth studio album, which was released with just sixteen hours warning, Folklore, Taylor Swift breathed generations of life into her new record. According to Oxford Languages, “folklore” means “the traditional… stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth.” Taylor’s Folklore is an intricately woven tapestry of seemingly disparate narratives that coalesce into a singular towering achievement. Birthed in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, Folklore explores the story of Rebekah Harkness, a fictional teenage love triangle, and Taylor’s own personal evolution inside and outside of her romantic relationships.

As one of the most successful music acts of all time, Taylor has started to taste the inevitable — that dreaded commercial decline. Lover (2019) and reputation (2017) were both million-sellers that housed multiple successful singles, but neither of the records reached the ubiquity of Fearless (2010), Red (2012), or 1989 (2014). The softer commercial reception of her latest albums is indicative of a harsh and unfair truth: Pop music continues to be hostile to female artists as they approach age 30. 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, Lizzo, Billie Eilish, etc. In the face of this, Folklore is a smart, conscious, and predictable 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. Taylor’s melodies are still largely rooted in mainstream pop music, but the instrumentation, vocal choices, and overall production are markedly more left-field than Taylor’s “Shake It Off” days. Folklore features longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff (Lana Del Rey, Lorde, 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 who is finished with the pop game and determined to remind us that her talent transcends trends and genre.

On an album with so many intertwining narrative arcs, the autobiographical enters a divine marriage with the fictional. “Cardigan,” “Betty,” and “August” comprise the Teenage Love Triangle narrative that Taylor explained in a live chat 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 top of earthy guitar chords. The familiar subject matter (the cyclical nature of love) and sound find a home within 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.

Republic

“Betty,” an infidelity-minded harmonica-led midtempo, is an absolutely stunning look at how Taylor’s mindset and lyricism have 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. We find out the details of the affair in “August,” but “Betty” (where we also find out the love interests are named James and Betty) focuses on the specific kind of belated yearning and pleading that colors this thing called love. “Betty” is one of the poppier moments on Folklore with a bubbly final chorus and a key change that is similar to one of Taylor’s modern classics: “Love Story.” 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. Finally, there’s “August,” the last song in the love triangle 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 lustful 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.

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 fellow musician, Rebekah finds herself to be the source material for the most interesting and revelatory narrative that Folklore has to offer. Beginning with “The Last Great 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 the sole destructive entity that is to be blamed for her husband’s death and thus the decline of the last great American dynasty. Outside of 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. Taylor winks at this connection by switching from third-person omniscient narration to first-person in the final chorus; she also directly references her purchase of the mansion and likens her own soirées to the parties thrown by Rebekah in the past.

For the purposes of Folklore and folklore, Rebekah Harkness and Taylor Swift 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 and menacing vocal approach to underscore the fact that her anger and fury are warranted. To hell with youth and innocence, this is the woman that the world has forced her, and Rebekah, to become in order to survive.

Taylor’s use of different narrative threads on Folklore exacerbates her already storied explorations of themes like maturation and innocence. 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 perfect “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 employs an upwards inflection on words that fall at the end of the verse (“high” and “man”) to symbolize the alluring 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. She’s a remarkably average vocalist that struggles to stay on key for most live performances and her range is fairly limited. Nevertheless, she works with what she has. On Folklore, she uses her lower register for some added husk to fully round out the sonic profile of the songs. “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. Taylor almost sounds like she is underwater, stifled under the pressure of truly taking accountability and responsibility for her own shortcomings. “Seven,” a reflection on the bright-eyed naïveté of childhood, is a small moment of purity on an album that is chiefly concerned with the dark residue that the world leaves on unsuspecting people.

On an album of standouts, “exile” and “peace” are shooting stars. 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 paired with Taylor’s lighter tone to add some texture to the story. The song begins as a somber piano ballad but soon morphs into a direct back-and-forth in the bridge. By juxtaposing an anthemic chorus against such understated production, Taylor creates a vacuum of discomfort that intensifies the myriad emotions coursing through the chords of the song. The latter, “peace,” is yet another ballad that finds Taylor realizing that peace in her current relationship is only achievable once she is at peace with herself and her own failures as a lover.

Folklore is an effortless victory for Taylor Swift. This is an album that reminds us of why we 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 a pivot to not only 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 concept albums that trace the route of her relationships 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 1989Folklore 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.

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”

Score: 89

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