Taylor Swift’s surprise album, “Folklore,” dares to venture into unfamiliar woods with a thematic tone for storytelling and ubiquitous, consuming emotion.
In August of 2019, Swift released her seventh studio album “Lover” under the wings of heightened public anticipation, an agenda for critical success and a marketed hope for a pristine shelf life to carry her musical whimsies through to her next lyrical endeavor. “Lover” quickly surpassed its challengers to become the most sold album of 2019, a feat that secured a first class ticket for such a shelf life.
On July 23, with no masterfully marketed warning, Swift announced the release of “Folklore” only hours before its arrival on streaming platforms. By stripping the flash and celebrity from her own bag of tricks, Taylor Swift set the tone for, what many would agree, is her most gentle creation.
First things first: this is a quarantine album. The collection of 16 songs began with a conversation in early April of this year between Swift and Aaron Dessner, a front member of the rock band The National. With Swift known for her country roots and pop fame and Dessner known for his indie, and oftentimes timid, style of music production, this duo was anything but predictable.
Upon first listen, “Folklore” presents lyrically intertwined plots and thematic vocabulary that ricochets throughout. The tempo is similar in all of the songs with its distinct slowness, especially compared to the high volume hits notched under Swift’s belt of celebrity. The first listen is simultaneously refreshing and shocking for those well-acquainted with her catalog of songs. The second listen establishes the unique sound of each song and clarifies those independent landscapes of story and the intertwined perspectives of plot.
Swift uses the album’s 63 minutes to explore a lifetime of stories and emotions specific to her headspace of isolation since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
On “Epiphany,” Swift unleashes a slowed down instrumentation and a haunting melody to bring her grandfather’s 1942 battlefield story alive in the first verse. By verse two, we arrive at a different scene: the ward of a hospital in 2020. “Something med school did not cover,” Swift sings, “Someone’s daughter, someone’s mother holds your hand through plastic now.” Drawing a personal connection between her grandfather’s service on the frontlines of World War II and the bravery of medical professionals is a simplistically delivered musing that deeply resonates through a soundscape built for the halls of a cathedral.
One storyline that Swift integrates into the album is a teenage love triangle told through the perspective of each character on three separate tracks.
“Cardigan,” the melodramatic single, begins the love triangle from the perspective of cardigan-wearing Betty, the girl who was cheated on. Mentions of cobblestones and rekindled love spring throughout the song. The music video echoes a two-fold definition of isolation: Swift uses her piano to escape to dimensions of bright greenery and raging seas as the only character in frame for the duration of the video. This imagery serves as a nod to Betty’s isolation as the outcast lover and Swift’s literal isolation that was required on the set for the video.
“August,” the Jack Antonoff-produced piece of the love triangle, is reminiscent of the duo’s past pop-infused collaborations like “The Archer” and “Call It What You Want.” Told from the perspective of the “other woman,” Swift leads listeners to this realization by the way of lyrical clues about secret meetings behind a mall and a love that really never was.
The reclaiming of an upbeat tempo and progression of storyline in “August” is furthered by the country-styled song “Betty.” The final puzzle piece of the teenage love triangle opens with the high-spirited scalings of a harmonica and speaks from the perspective of a boy named James. Mention of skateboards and the switching of homerooms facilitates the layering of idyllic childhood imagery that is matched by the equally playful stylings of the song. Nervous and youthful ramblings from James’s perspective about reclaiming Betty’s trust and love is the focal point of “Betty,” an instant favorite on the album.
Swift credits her lucid imagination for such threads of deviation: “I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known or those I wish I hadn’t.”
Since day one, Swift’s music has been directly tied to her walk with love, relationships cloaked in secret splendor and those drenched in public regret. Naturally, that same motif exists here.
The opening song on the album, “The 1,” delivers the story of love that was remiss, with piano-styled synthetic ponderings of what-ifs. As an opener, the song delivers at a pleasing pulse that solidifies the existence of the album as an unapologetically emotional tone and balanced, optimistic frequency of sound.
Justin Vernon, the voice behind the nine person indie folk band Bon Iver, lends his rustic talents to the conversational devastation that is “Exile.” This collaboration stands in a league of its own on “Folklore,” partially because of the powerful imagery of repeated offenses and miscommunication that lead to exile and partially because of the depth in voice and unleashed passion that Bon Iver adds.
The heavy ash of certain songs like “Exile” make the album an irrefutable work of artistry and craft, but it is the hopeful and carefree demeanor of other tracks that bring people into the fold of the entire scape that is “Folklore.”
“Invisible String” uses differentiated patterns of rhyme and syntax that pair masterfully with the backbone of the song: the plucking sound of cheerful violin strings. Standing as one of the only easily transcribed love songs on the album, Swift presumably shares some minute and rare details of her relationship with long time boyfriend Joe Alwyn.
In one of her most transparent attempts at telling the story of someone she has never met, Taylor Swift uses “The Last Great American Dynasty” as a vehicle to relay the story of Rebekah Harkness, the previous owner of the New Hampshire beachside mansion that Swift calls home. An upbeat tune with a quick-paced progression of story about “the maddest woman this town has ever seen,” this track paints Harkness as a care-free divorcee with eccentric friends like Salvador Dalí, whose dog she stole and reportedly died key-lime green. These unexpected details and the lyrical parallel between Harkness and Swift herself invite the listener in and require the raising of an eyebrow, as well as the celebration of the song’s risk and subsequent success.
“Folklore” and the times at hand gave Taylor Swift the permission to create a clean slate for herself. Intertwining complex love stories of fact and fiction have permanently blurred the lines of Swift’s infamous song books. As a female artist, Swift claims that reinvention is the only route to continued relevance. Through “Folklore,” Swift has reinvented her aesthetic and ventured into a seemingly unfamiliar realm of the alternative genre, but her dynamic song writing and commitment to storytelling are what make this new realm seem like home. For all of its ebbing and flowing, “Folklore” delivers as an album of comforting isolation with golden strings of hope and fanaticism.