Album Review: Taylor Swift – folklore
Lover was a grower, an effervescent entry in Taylor Swift’s catalogue of pop music that revealed its delights beyond the bubblegum pastel of its singles as the yang to Red’s yin. Albeit lengthy, Lover was unabashedly joyous and dreamy, closing a chapter of turmoil in Swift’s life. It was an album made for summer romances, and she was due to headline festivals this summer (including Glastonbury and British Summer Time) in her biggest European tour in a decade. Instead, only 11 months after Lover, we received folklore, a quiet, contemplative album born from the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a far cry aesthetically from Lover, and more immediate.
Like all of Swift’s albums since Red, folklore is held together by its theme. Whereas Red and Lover were collages of heartbreak and love, respectively, folklore is a series of stories, both about herself and characters she has created. Swift drifts between the first- and third-person as she narrates interconnected stories of young love, and ‘the last great american dynasty’ finds her subtly transforming the ‘she’ of Rebekah Harkness to the ‘I’ of herself, drawing parallels between each other. Holding all these tales together is the reflective mood created by The National’s Aaron Dessner, who furnishes the album with elements of piano-driven indie rock and folktronica, forming stunning soundscapes that complement Swift’s musings. Also lending their talents to folklore are Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (who most notably collaborated with Dessner as Big Red Machine), the mysterious William Bowery, and frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff, who contributes his signature glossy indie-pop treatment.
it’s hard not to see the real world looming over it.
Opening tracks have always been grand for Taylor Swift; ‘State of Grace’ was her defining thesis on love; ‘Welcome to New York’ and ‘I Forget That You Existed’ were reinventions of herself; ‘the 1’ is a slow-burner that manages to be both. ‘I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit,’ she sings, once again a blank slate, before going on to reminisce on past romances. Lover’s closer ‘Daylight’ was an admission of being wrong and moving on (‘I once believed love would be burning red / But it’s golden, like daylight’), and ‘the 1’ is its natural sequel. Over sparse keys, she regrets ‘never leaving “well enough” alone’ in previous relationships, but celebrates ‘making it count’. Despite its title, ‘the 1’ isn’t a love song; Swift ponders an alternate narrative where ‘it would have been fun / If you would have been the one’, delineating the song as an ode to nostalgia, and as a story of healing.
The rest of the songs on folklore similarly unravel themselves as short narratives, before revealing alternate narratives that blend autobiography and fiction. ‘exile’, Swift’s collaboration with Bon Iver, is on the surface a breakup song utilising the metaphor of exile from home, but taken literally, the lyrics lend themselves to a different interpretation. ‘You’re not my homeland anymore / So what am I defending now?’ asks Vernon in the chorus, before Swift questions, ‘I’m not your problem anymore / So who am I offending now?’, voicing their disillusionment of America’s political climate, something both artists have been outspoken about recently. The haunting ‘my tears ricochet’ instead bitterly compares a breakup to a funeral, but the narrator’s struggle from beyond the grave with the ‘hero flying around, saving face’ bears resemblance to Swift’s battle with her old record label, who are reaping the rewards from owning her masters (‘You wear the same jewels that I gave you as you bury me’) yet still dependent on her (‘And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake? / Cursing my name, wishing I stayed’). Swift also alludes to the drama of her personal life on ‘mad woman’, playing the role of the angry, scathing witch in the verses (‘It’s obvious that wanting me dead has really brought you two together’) and the level-headed, third-person narrator in the chorus (‘And you’ll poke that bear till her claws come out / And you’ll find something to wrap your noose around’). It’s a tired persona after reputation, but it’s also immaculately written.
Even when taking the album as a collection of fables without any autobiographical basis, it’s hard not to see the real world looming over it. ‘epiphany’ is set as a story about a soldier, juxtaposing tranquil piano chords with images of ‘crawling up the beaches’, but it’s difficult to separate its ruminations on death with the ongoing pandemic. Its acceptance of the universal inevitability of death (‘Someone’s daughter, someone’s mother’), and the reality of social distancing conjured with the line ‘holds your hand through plastic now’ is an apt reminder that there is truth in all fiction. The song is not entirely bleak, however, and Swift’s praise for the frontline workers is intensified with the image of ‘just one single glimpse of relief / To make some sense of what you’ve seen’.
The heavy moments on folklore are contrasted with the innocence of songs like ‘seven’, a love letter to a childhood friend that calls back to ‘Ronan’ (‘Love you to the moon and to Saturn’) and ‘The Best Day’ (‘We can be pirates’), and its suggestions of secrecy (‘Then you won’t have to cry or hide in the closet’) give the song a queer interpretation. References to older songs can be found all over folklore, but it’s on the high school drama of ‘betty’ that Swift revives the country-pop of Fearless. It’s the most provoking song on the album, marking a return to a sound that Swift has long outgrown, complete with heavy-handed references to summers and gardens and that key change on ‘Love Story’; it almost feels like a parody of a Taylor Swift song. While on paper, the narrative of ‘betty’ is as straight-forward as it gets, telling the story of a relationship between her and James, it takes four minutes before the story comes together. The narrator is initially presumed to be Swift, and the song misleads the listener into thinking her conflict with Betty is over a boy (‘I saw you dance with him’). Three minutes in, the narrator is named as James, and it’s not until the final chorus when it’s revealed the narrator is in love with Betty. It’s a perplexing tale of youth and infidelity, dotted with queer undertones, and it’s hard to grasp what its purpose on the album is.
Infidelity is a recurring theme in Swift’s discography, and it’s no surprise that it’s covered more explicitly on the song ‘illicit affairs’. Her past work has seen her become less critical of cheating (compare ‘Should’ve Said No’ and ‘Better than Revenge’ to ‘Girl at Home’ and ‘Gorgeous’), and ‘illicit affairs’ takes her most measured approach yet. It’s perhaps Swift’s best writing yet, as she masterfully evokes the imagery of secrecy that she has done since ‘Our Song’. Swift again takes the role of the narrator detached from the story, setting the scene (‘What started in beautiful rooms ends with meetings in parking lots’) and emphasising the delicate words with a breathy, high-pitched squeal (‘Tell yourself you can always stop’). After the first verse, Swift appears more sympathetic (‘that’s the thing about illicit affairs’), describing it as a ‘dwindling, mercurial high’. Then suddenly, the acoustic song bursts into life, and all the knowing and longing in Swift’s voice is translated into its final lines, an exasperated, ‘And you know damn well for you, I would ruin myself a million little times’.
Such explosive moments are replicated on the rest of the songs produced by Antonoff. ‘this is me trying’ is a poetic stream-of-consciousness interspersed with an assertion that ‘this is me trying’, and when she adds, ‘At least I’m trying’, the accompanying swell of music makes the song’s simplest line its most effective. Whereas much of folklore sounds like Swift singing over The National’s music, Antonoff’s songs sound distinctly Taylor, and ‘august’ is classic Taylor Swift, with nostalgic lines like ‘And I can see us twisted in bedsheets / August sipped away like a bottle of wine’. ‘august’ marries folk with the soaring pop of ‘Out of the Woods’, ‘Getaway Car’ and ‘Cruel Summer’ (arguably Swift’s best work since she went pop) to great effect, and the extended outro of the song gives it the breathing space it deserves. It’s one of the best moments on a phenomenal album, with the other being the mesmerising ‘mirrorball’. Like a few songs on Lover, ‘mirrorball’ finds Swift experimenting with dream pop, and on this song she channels the enchanting guitar and melodies of Slowdive and Alvvays, confessing her fragility and attempts to impress. It’s more personal than much of folklore, but it’s not hard to imagine why she has shied away from autobiography when every lyric she writes has been scrutinised by fans and the media. Fortunately, Swift shows that she’s just as capable writing about other people (as she had done on ‘Mary’s Song’ and ‘Starlight’), continuing to create relatable songs filled with emotion and vivid imagery.
Though ‘illicit affair’ best showcases Swift’s songwriting, it’s the detail of surrender on the last two songs of folklore that shows how much her craft has developed. Ever the romantic, her approach to love has always swung between the fairy tale romances of Speak Now and the emotional rollercoaster that is Red. Yet on ‘the 1’, she recognises that ‘the greatest loves of all time are over now’, and as the album comes to a close on ‘hoax’, Swift admits to being conquered by love (‘My only one / My kingdom come undone / My broken drum / You have beaten my heart’). Disguised as a breakup song, ‘hoax’ is a remarkable play on its title that reveals the truth in context of the rest of her discography. 1989 chronicled her life in New York, and Lover was her moving on from the city; on ‘hoax’ she sings, ‘You know I left a part of me back in New York’, reflecting on her growth, and when she declares, ‘Don’t want no other shade of blue but you,’ Swift embraces the blue melancholy of love described on Lover rather than the tumult of Red. This image appears again on ‘peace’ as the ‘cascade, ocean wave blues’, and she describes this serene ideal of love as the ‘silence that only comes when two people understand each other’. There’s an assured maturity in her voice when she asks, ‘Would it be enough if I could never give you peace?’, and in spite of the doubting question, she sounds accepting and at peace, as if she already knows the answer.