Album Review: Taylor Swift – folklore

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It was surprising when Taylor Swift announced her eighth album last Thursday with only 17 hours notice of it’s release. Dropping that midnight, Swift described the motivation of the record as the melancholy and whimsy feeling that had poured out during this summer of isolation. “Most of the things I had planned this summer didn’t end up happening. But there is something I hadn’t planned on that DID happen,” she said through her initial announcement of the project. Her seventh album, Lover, was only released in August of last year. Yet, folklore, a 16-song indie rock slow-bake mainly produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, was already packaged and on parade to her fans who have barely caught their breath from the last 11 months.

Looking back at her music discography, her last three releases have all had big-business marketing foundations that have coincided with their releases. 1989, her peak in the pop arena, leaned heavily on the nostalgia of the 80’s and vintage youth over-the-top of her first, real flares with electric synths and catchy production. Reputation, met with pools of controversy, followed that trail but tried out an edgier slant. The fanfare surrounding the record focused on weaponizing herself with her media-driven image. She capitalized off of the snake mascot that was tied to her name after the public feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian and became an alternate version of her reflection, laden with celebrity gossip that, unfortunately, spread throughout the record. Coming back two years later, Lover tried out a different approach. This era thrived in the pastels and pixie-dust highs. It pulled the reigns back on the image that had been overworked through Reputation’s era and provided a much softer version of Swift. The music was a decent and minimal puff of a pop record that really should be endearing for what it was.

Yet, it was in Swift’s continuous, pop-y space where she began becoming stagnant. 1989 felt like her defining moment in that arena while the other two records struggled to keep up with the momentum and became re-illustrated versions of that album’s production and direction.  So, when she decided to drop folklore on her goliath fanbase without any fanfare to interlace its hand, there was an air of transition that surrounded the announcement. It was time to return to the basics and start anew.

With one listen-through of this earth-bound release, it seems apparent that Swift is re-framing her perspective on music and what that music means to her. Without the curtain calls of approval and recognition, she is left with herself and the decision to accompany herself with simple production. Another adjustment is in the meat of the record where she took to social media to describe the inspiration around the work. “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.” She said the visions of the record were tied around characters and ideas that grew legs from the blurring of reality and fiction. Unlike her past releases, nothing about folklore can be chased by media-doused narratives and gossip fodder to reshape a listener’s translation. Instead, it is Swift’s first adult record that visits themes of creatives for creatives and allows there to be a universal humanity interwoven into the entire album. And, this decision is what makes folklore as timeless as it sounds.

The moment one flips on the opener, “the 1”, the listener is hit with twinkling piano keys that bleed into soft, rumbling guitars, and murmuring synths that build throughout the album. The lens of an alternative universe bubbles into the first track as the narrator ends up with the ex-lover without worrying about the weight of the world. A perfect example of this seamless blend between fantasy and reality, the first half of the track daydreams about being with the one who got away, “tossing pennies into the pool, and if my wishes came true, it would’ve been you…” As the track whims on, reality crumbles down around them, having to face the ugly truth, “if one thing had been different, would everything be different today?”

Swift’s stretches into storytelling are at their strongest and most natural in the tracks that are battered with characters and myth. “the last great american dynasty” has one of the catchiest hooks on the record, but it also feels rustic as it details the life of Rebekah Harkness, her house, and her eventful life in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Metaphorically screaming out the title of the record, this song is a quirky entrancement where one hangs onto Swift’s words like a folksong that is too good to turn down.  The myth of Harkness builds from within alongside piano plucking and muted synths until the bridge where Swift sings, “And then it was bought by me. I had a marvelous time ruining everything” that switches the story to reflect her experiences that mirrors Harkness.

Elsewhere on the record, a theme bubbles between a “young love triangle” flashing between the perspectives involved. Whether it’s in her most familiar vocal tone, “august” that looks through the lens of one of the women, or twangy, harmonica-drenched “betty,” lyrics parallel one another to piece together fractures of an all-too-familiar story- august’s “I pulled up in my car and told you to get in” is referenced again in “betty” when another character hooks up with the woman in her car but is dreaming of Betty the entire time. A myriad of other translations can be made for tracks that indulge in celestial time warps of Sufjan Stevens like “Illicit Affairs” or the ghostly “Hoaxes” that seem to hinge on the faces that dominate folklore.

There are even flashes of dewy, artistic growth sprinkled throughout the record. One in particular is the tense and unwavering “mad woman” that documents the emotional toll that is a perpetuated cycle in society of women growing angrier by being labeled angry. Where Lover’s “The Man” first dipped Swift’s toes into gender inequalities, “mad woman” elevates the ammo as it hits a much more personal strife.

Cherry picking my personal favorites, I would start with Swift’s only track with a listed feature on the album, “exile”  featuring Bon Iver. It has an eventful unfolding  as an ultimate breakup song, and Swift holds her own against Justin Vernon (a feat, considering many collaborations she’s done in the past end up feeling like she is featuring on their track instead). Tying up the different perspectives between the man and the woman, this melancholy spark encompasses the anxiety of leaving someone due to an unhealthy dependency that has formed. In a swoop of clever lyricism, Vernon pleads “you were my town” to depict his whole world while Swift pushes back with, “you were my crown” to explain that she already had the world, and he had been an accessory.

The second spotlight falls onto “mirrorball.” The tune drips of Jack Antonoff and it’s one of the few tracks produced by him and not Aaron Dessner. Bouncing in cascading synths and soft guitars, the soundscape of the song is more akin to a Bleacher’s track on a mid-summer’s day in the 90’s while sprawled across the grass. Lyrically, we see Swift at her most self-aware. She’s sifting through metaphors that depict how she “reflects” the personalities of others to appeal to them. It seems to be a matured take on “Blank Space” where, in 2014, we saw her satirically showcase the media’s portrayal of her image. “mirrorball,” however, sees her owning up to these portrayals, moseying lyrics like, “I can change everything there is about me to fit in” and “I’m not natural. All I do is try.” It’s a bittersweet recognition but relates the strongest in desires to paint up your face to mirror one you love.

If there’s another track you must listen to, it’s in the devastating shoot-out of “my tears ricochet,” a track that truly grapples with Swift’s relationship with words. Being the first song written for the record, it is sung to someone from the perspective of a deceased lover. They comb through the toxic nature of this past relationship. She goes on to mention gathered stones which could translate to weaponized actions and flaws between the two of them. Even when singing about a diamond ring, Swift makes sure to use language that is drenched in warfare. The production on this track is atmospheric and leans into the song’s theme. Antonoff and Swift are at their most creative here, masking reverb to Swift’s vocals and adding a vocoder to further depict the narrator’s ghostly state. “my tears ricochet” is a performance in and of itself.

Taylor Swift’s folklore isn’t a perfect album by any means. It grows stale in parts, and her habit of teasing records out far too long ends up with lost momentum on folklore in its second act, but it is an album that embodies the blossoming of her as a musician first and an icon second. She is finally making music to make music and not to seal approval of those around her. The stripped, simple production highlights her greatest talents: emotive tone, natural storytelling, and lyrical craft—something that sometimes gets camouflaged in her past records.

This is Swift at her most vulnerable. Her most intimate. It’s not a record to indulge all at once but to savor. A record that lands Taylor somewhere in between Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, and it leaves the listener to write the pages from her words. It’s just as much her story to tell as it is yours, and it’s the perfect symbolism of passing down the songs just like folklore– tweaking the meaning until it becomes a journey of your own.

folklore is special because it is completely human, and in that humanity, it’s safe to say that it’s Taylor Swift’s strongest effort to date.


Disappointing / Average / Good / Great/ Phenomenal


Hope Ankney | @hope_ankleknee

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