Taylor Swift’s latest album “folklore” took the world by surprise when it was released on July 24. Here, Swift’s storytelling and vocal abilities sing with great maturity and meditation. Crafted in the chaos of the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, she handed the world a sense of calm in the form of her musical folktales.
This clandestine quarantine creation was given little to no promotion beforehand and announced a day before its release. “folklore” was co-produced by Swift’s long-time colleague and friend Jack Antonoff and rock band The National’s Aaron Dessner.
Drifting from the scintillating joy that Swift’s pop album “Lover” radiated last summer, “folklore” takes on alternative, indie and folk genres with stripped-down sounds, lyrical specificity, diverse narratives and soulful imagination.
This 63-minute listen may have been dropped in the middle of a cruel summer, but the cozy vibe of this album takes one to straight to a fall sunrise in the forest. The album cover itself is a grayscale image of Swift wandering in the woods, towered over by trees. In a letter Swift posted on Instagram, she called this album “a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness.”
When breaking down the soft tone of the album, Swift said her eight studio album was “wistful and full of escapism ... Sad, beautiful, tragic. Like a photo album full of imagery, and all the stories behind that imagery."
Coincidentally, “Sad Beautiful Tragic” is a reminiscent and lovelorn track off of Swift’s 2012 album “Red,” which echoes the emotional intelligence of this album. As of the week of Aug. 29, “folklore” has occupied the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart for the last four weeks since its release.
The first of 16 tracks on the album, “the 1,” is a sentimental telling of what could have been in romance. Optimism and nostalgia inform the song’s light, captivating sound. On its first day, “the 1” occupied the top spot on the U.S. Spotify Chart with 4.175 million streams, making it the biggest American debut for any song by a female artist in history.
“cardigan” is Swift’s first single off her “folklore” era and is the first of three songs that tells the story of a teenage love triangle. James, Inez and Betty, the characters in Swift’s trilogy, are named after the three daughters of her friends Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds. The narrator of this song is Betty, who is referenced in the title of track 14. Betty explains the highs and lows of her youthful, tumultuous relationship with a boy named James, all symbolized in the souvenir of a warm cardigan.
Next is “the last great american dynasty,” which tells the true story of a wealthy woman hated by the people of her town named Rebekah Harness, who previously owned Swift’s holiday mansion in Rhode Island. Harness’s extravagant lifestyle was responsible for her husband’s death and the fall of his oil empire, according to the townspeople. In many ways, society’s perception of Harness parallels the glaring criticism and relentless gossip Swift has endured throughout her career.
“exile (feat. Bon Iver),” a fitting collaboration for this album, is a conversation between two lovers filled with glorious harmonies and bursting with melancholy and angst. This song shares many similarities with Swift’s 2012 duet “The Last Time (feat. Gary Lightbody)" with Snow Patrol’s lead vocalist. “my tears ricochet,” characterized by its ghostly imagery, follows with a similar air of haunting anxiety and is meant to be about a bully showing up at his victim’s funeral and reflecting on their demise.
The tone of the album shifts into something more cheerful and whimsical with “mirrorball,” in which Swift embodies a symbolic and revelatory disco ball. The seventh track “seven” remembers a long-lost childhood friend of Swift’s from Pennsylvania and their escapist, innocent dreams of running away to India.
The eighth song is named after the eighth month of the year, “august,” and reflects on a fleeting summer fling between an aforementioned character, James, and the narrator, Inez. One of the most memorable lyrics in the song holds true to the summer of this year: “August sipped away like a bottle of wine.”
“this is me trying,” another track with ethereal and varied vocals, admits Swift’s regrets about the reasons behind a relationship’s failure, citing alcoholism, fear and insecurities. “illicit affairs” is a nuanced take on infidelity that explores the duality of an affair’s “dwindling, mercurial high” and its inexorable resultant heartbreak.
Track 11, “invisible string,” offers listeners gentle banjo instrumentals and intimate wisdom on fate leading one to their soulmate. In Swift’s case, that destined soulmate is her boyfriend Joe Alwyn.
In the next song, “mad woman,” Swift revisits the theme of the struggles of being a young woman in the public eye and the sexist notions of success perpetuated in contemporary society. In this song, she is likely drawing from her experiences dealing with powerful men like Kanye West, who attacked her on his 2016 song “Famous,” and music moguls Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta of Big Machine Records, who both hindered her from owning her music.
“epiphany” is a pained yet angelic song that touches on Swift’s grandfather’s experience in the military, while also paying homage to healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic who toil every day to keep people alive and likely struggle to find peace of mind in today’s chaotic world.
Another tonal shift takes place after Track 13 with “betty,” which is lined throughout with the folk sounds of a harmonica. This song completes Swift’s love triangle from the more childish perspective of James, who declares his longing love for Betty and admits that cheating on her with Inez in the summer was a mistake.
The penultimate song “peace” touches on the fact that Swift’s abnormal life in the spotlight can be troublesome for sustaining romance, but she hopes that she has found something lasting now.
“hoax” is the album’s devastating end that traverses the push-and-pull of a toxic relationship. On the deluxe version of the album, “the lakes” is a bonus track that ponders on a utopian life for Swift near the Windermere Lake in England, void of social media and filled with poetic natural beauty.
With these 17 songs, “folklore” feels like a perfectly evolved and record-breaking testament to Swift’s endless talent and genius as a genre-crossing singer-songwriter.