I remember when the superstar released 1989—a ground-breaking album that replaced the comfortable image we collectively held of the beach-waved country singer with a sleek-bobbed pop star that took the genre to its most crafted fringes.
This perfect pop album earned Swift 10 Grammy noms, the Album of the Year award, and set her on a course of exploring new realms of production and subject matter. It also led her to a parting of ways with her Country label Big Machine, and catapulted her even further into a dominion of stardom that’s not only unprecedented, but untouchable.
While 1989 felt like a rubicon of sorts dripping with the counter-intuitive desire of resisting to reach the height of one’s potential, she managed to deliver two more successful projects in reputation and Lover (both in terms of quality and commercial success), and while reputation didn’t do as well as she hoped and is never the popular choice of a “which TS album is the best?” poll, a weaker Swift album is still incredibly well done with this album bringing “Delicate” (a personal all-time favorite and #4 on Rob Sheffield’s ranking of all 153 Taylor Swift songs on Rolling Stone).
Lover felt like a kaleidoscope of experimentation, appropriately reflecting the aesthetic in Stella McCartney’s branding. It seemed to be a sonic summation of Swift’s discography since her very first release, and a musical personification of her maturity and emotional health as she crossed the 30-year-old threshold.
So she proves that 1989 is not her pinnacle once or twice over (depending on who you ask), and the question must be asked—where can she possibly go from here?
I remember back in 2017 when we were anticipating TS6 (which became reputation), I told a friend who was equally concerned as I was about Swift following 1989 that this might be the perfect time for her to do a total 180 and release an acoustic album.
But as it turns out, I was once again wrong and Swift was once again very right. 2020 turned out to be the perfect year for Swift to retreat back into nuanced simplicity with her surprise album folklore.
This project fittingly feels like isolation.
Swift has released an album beautifully walking the cusp of haunting and comforting, and it’s just what we needed in a time of prolonged hopelessness. And while she clearly draws new inspiration from “sad girl” indie artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Soccer Mommy, and so on, it doesn’t sound derivative or artifice. It sounds genuine—and the perfect musical landscape for the thoughts and imagery she’s wrestled and reveled in during quarantine.
Coming from the sonically-tight earworms of Lover, it feels perfect for Swift to release loose, uncomfortable musical zones for her thoughts and fears to rest in. folklore opens with “the 1” and though it’s subject matter is quite the opposite, its mood is oddly similar to Lover’s track #1 “I Forgot That You Existed”—light and easy. “the 1” posits what could’ve been, and its lyrical/musical dissonance allows the listener to choose from either melancholy or fantasy.
She collaborates with Bon Iver on “exile” who starts the song with his gently booming, atmospheric vocals that eventually sing both octaves simultaneously. The contrasting timbres of their voices make “exile” dramatically charged in the best way and near-cinematic. The call-and-response section vividly represents miscommunication and the first person narratives we can find ourselves trapped in when perspective and objectivity falls out of reach.
“You’re not my homeland anymore—so what am I defending?” is a beautifully heartbreaking revelation. It’s one of my favorite lines on the whole record.
“mirrorball” is another standout. It’s arguably the most unique sonically—it sounds like Sheryl Crow collaborated with Soccer Mommy and Snail Mail. And the idea of being able to not only reflect all the pieces of someone you love but to create a space where you can both dance and revel in those reflections is just so dreamy.
The beginning of “august” feels like the pt. ii of “mirrorball”—featuring subtly doubled vocals that feel effortless and almost careless one moment and impassioned the next. Similar to “this is me trying,” this trio feels like a callback to the headspace invoked by “Wildest Dreams.”
I can’t help but think of Lorde’s ribbon theme in Melodrama when I listen to “invisible string.” The idea of this elusive connection between our intertwining stories is a beautifully intriguing theme to explore. I absolutely love the almost harp-like, dry guitar plucking, and as someone who lived in Nashville for 8 years I love the Centennial Park reference and can absolutely connect to the sentiment of hoping to find someone significant there. This is probably my favorite song melodically.
folklore ends with a pair of possibly the most conversational songs on the record. “Would it be enough if I could never give you peace?” is a humble, self-aware question for the penultimate track. And “hoax” feels like a haunting lullaby leaving us intentionally contemplative at the close of the album.
While there are some misses, it’s hard not to on a 16-track album that can’t hide behind ostentatiously distracting production. For me these would include “the last great american dynasty,” “seven,” and I know I’ll get heat for this…but I don’t understand the fascination with “betty.”
To me folklore is really her first album that’s narratively ambiguous, and rather than only wondering “which boy is this one about???” the listener is welcome to posit what purpose each introspective piece serves, and as her romantic life has become purposefully much quieter in recent years, one can assume that these songs might not even be about anyone in particular—almost making them more powerful in their lack of specificity.
This album is also perfect for this (fighting the urge to say “unprecedented”….) time because it’s unselfish even in the way it was released. You know that Swift thrives on the marketing strategy prowess of her music, and for her to just quietly drop this into the ether was respectful and self-aware.
When you listen all the way through, folklore feels like a stripped down, living room livestream, which is the perfect medium we were all meant to hear these songs. As we all reevaluate in this time and move toward the things that are most centering for us, it’s comforting to have this return-to-roots Swift album as our soundtrack to get us there.