Folklore: Storytime with Taylor Swift
Reading Time: 3 minutes
What does a musician do when free from the confines of a previously restrictive record label and stuck at home in the midst of a pandemic? If you’re Taylor Swift, you’ll drop a surprise, full-length album. It’s indie (she went from country to pop to indie? Oh man); it’s intense, but most importantly, it’s fantastic. This just might be her best project yet.
“folklore” is an unprecedented album. Produced by Swift, Aaron Dessner (of The National), and Jack Antonoff in a remote collaboration, the project was recorded in isolation. Unlike her previous albums rollouts, it wasn’t preceded by any press, flashy singles, or fanfare. It was released on July 24 with less than 24 hours’ notice following a brief and abrupt announcement on Swift’s social media platforms.
Swift’s eighth studio album is also unique in its darker, sadder sentiment. Because it was recorded in quarantine, the instrumentation is fairly simple with only piano and guitar, with bare-bones percussion and soft strings coming in to highlight key moments. It’s beautiful and laced with emotional depth. It’s characteristic of Swift to write extensively about her personal life, but in “folklore,” her narrative scope has broadened beyond her own reality. As she puts it aptly in her prologue, “In isolation, my imagination has run wild, and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness. Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory.”
Swift writes of imaginary characters, rooted in fiction but explored through her image-saturated lyrics. She crafts the storytelling of “folklore” through thematic arcs, such as the teenage love triangle present in tracks “cardigan,” “betty,” and “august.” “cardigan” is written from the perspective of Betty, who looks back on an intense relationship from her youth that ended badly when her ex, James, cheated on her with another girl. “august” tells the story of James’s paramour in a hazy fashion, as she recalls the short-lived infatuation with bittersweet late-summer imagery: “August sipped away like a bottle of wine / ‘Cause you were never mine.” Notice the slight homonym with “slipped” and “sipped” that makes the verse that much more powerful. Finally we reach James himself on “betty.” The track is very reminiscent of “Taylor Swift” (2006) and “Fearless” (2008), Swift’s debut and sophomore albums, in which the backdrop consists of high school dances and the-boy-next-door vibes (with the nostalgia-ridden harmonica accompanying the simple guitar melodies). “betty” does a great job of juxtaposing the immaturity and frustrations that come with experiencing a first love: “Slept next to her, but / I dreamt of you all summer long / I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything / But I know I miss you.”
One of the most compelling things about her as a person and artist is her narrative songwriting abilities, abilities she’s sharpened throughout her entire musical career as a writer/co-writer on all of her songs. As a result, there are easter eggs hidden among the lyrics that make her songs all the more dynamic. On “the last great american dynasty,” Swift sings: “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen.” It’s probably not a coincidence it references another lyric on “Daylight” from “Lover” (2019): “Maybe I’ve stormed out of every room in this town.” She’s notorious for speaking of her dating life, such as her past relationship with Joe Jonas in 2008. She mentions him on “Forever and Always” and most recently, on “invisible string”: “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind / For the boys who broke my heart / Now I send their babies presents.” Jonas and his wife, Sophie Jonas, welcomed their first child, Willa, in July.
This new album highlights how far Swift has come. Earlier projects like “Speak Now” (2010) have a childlike, romanticized innocence. In later albums including “Reputation” (2017), Swift tries to break the mold by re-inventing herself in creative ways. “Lover” is warmer and carefree, but “folklore” sounds like the musical equivalent of calm mornings in a grassy field with morning dew after a long storm: ruminative, nostalgic, and serene. It’s mature and fitting for this juncture of Swift’s career, with the pandemic bringing an opportunity for her to reflect on her journey. As she says in “this is me trying”: “I’ve been having a hard time adjusting / I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting / I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back / I have a lot of regrets about that.”
It seems appropriate that “folklore” came as it did—almost deliberately too. Swift harnesses the zeitgeist and incorporates it into her music. The darker tones and yearning feel of “folklore” embody the type of wistfulness we are all feeling as we cope with the adjustments of everyday life in these tough times. It seems that Swift is making reckonings with her life and the lives of others in her imagination. Maybe “folklore” signals to us to make reckonings with ours.