With her latest album, “folklore,” Taylor Swift has proven herself to be an exceedingly rare kind of artist. “folklore” is a departure from her previous work in regard to genre but in other aspects it feels like a return to her starry-eyed beginnings. Throughout the album Swift weaves in and out of fictional narratives, scattering pieces of her own life among them in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s real and what’s imagined. With the creative input of Bon Iver, Jack Antonoff and The National’s Aaron Dessner, it’s no surprise that this album sees Swift venture further into the indie-pop genre when compared to her prior work. “folklore” neatly encapsulates a wide array of emotions, experiences and aesthetics; it is, without a doubt, Swift’s most impressive work to date.
The lyrical preoccupations that Swift was criticized for early on in her career are at the forefront of “Folklore.” Fairy tales, high school romances and melodramatic break ups abound throughout the album, but they’re filtered through a more mature lens. A trio of songs that Swift has referred to as the “teenage love triangle” tell a story from three different, though equally sympathetic, perspectives. “cardigan”, the lead single and one piece of the love triangle, is a study in hindsight. Every line is bittersweet, with each new verse edging closer and closer to melancholy. The mundane and the fantastic intersect with lyrics like “chasing shadows in the grocery line” and “you drew stars around my scars.” It’s that mingling of fantasy and reality that turns “cardigan” from a simple ballad of lost love into a nuanced look at the fluidity of memory.
“august” and “betty,” the two remaining sides of the love triangle, aren’t as lyrically dense as “cardigan,” but still manage to portray new and complex facets of the narrative. “august”, like “cardigan,” oscillates between romanticism and stark reality. The lyric “August sipped away like a bottle of wine” conveys the sensuality and temporary excitement of a summer fling, while “Cancel plans just in case you’d call” captures the very teenage anxiety that arises from the same situation. Where “betty” lacks the clever contradictions of “august,” it makes up for it with nostalgia and endearing naivete. The song is an apology to Betty, narrated by the boy who cheated on her and now wants her back. Lines like “If you kiss me, will it be just like I dreamed it?” point to a kind of adolescent innocence mirroring that of “august.” That connection between youth, time and perception is made even clearer by “cardigan’s” refrain: “When you are young, they assume you know nothing”.
Apart from the “teenage love triangle” there are no explicit connections between any of the other songs on “folklore,” though there are a number of motifs and thematic similarities running throughout the album. “the last great american dynasty” paints a detailed portrait of Rebekah Harkness, the previous owner of Swift’s Rhode Island mansion, and draws parallels between the two women. It’s not hard to imagine how the “women with madness, their men and bad habits” that occupied the house in Harkness’ time are meant to be mirrors of Swift’s famed Fourth of July parties. More importantly, “the last great american dynasty” explores the villainization of women in the public eye, an inevitability that “mad woman” delves even deeper into. Swift’s voice takes on a slightly unhinged tone when she croons, “No one likes a mad woman / You made her like that;” the line serves as a reminder of why powerful women are so often painted as unstable and conniving and how little say they have in how they’re perceived.
While nearly all the songs on “folklore” feel incredibly personal, there are a few that standout as being especially confessional. Although Swift has never shied away from writing about her own life, “mirrorball” takes that a step further. She alludes to the pressures of fame and details how her “shattered edges glisten”, a clever acknowledgement of the public’s fascination with tragic artists. Swift’s openness about her complicated relationship with celebrity doesn’t end there; “peace” reveals insecurity bordering on imposter syndrome. She tentatively warns her partner that “the rain is always gonna come if you’re standing with me,” an especially poignant lyric after the pleasantly sappy love song, “invisible string.”
It would be a mistake to talk about “folklore” without mentioning “exile,” a duet between Swift and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Miscommunication is made eerily beautiful in the bridge where Vernon laments, “You never gave a warning sign,” only for Swift to counter, “I gave so many signs.” Although they’re an unexpected pairing, both artists are known for conveying intense emotion in their songs, and “exile” is no exception. The verses are both heartbreaking and clever, and the refrain, “I think I’ve seen this film before,” is a striking metaphor for a slowly deteriorating relationship.
“folklore” is a complete turnaround from Swift’s previous album “Lover,” which hinged on a lighter dream-pop sound. It’s also a partial return to her country roots in the way of storytelling. However, it’s difficult to truly compare “folklore” to any of Swift’s other records given its unprecedented level of maturity and insight. On “the lakes,” a bonus track that became available for streaming nearly four weeks after the initial release, Swift dreams of watching wisteria grow over her bare feet. If it’s longevity and timelessness, traits often symbolized by wisteria, that Swift is looking for she’s certainly found it with “folklore.”
Molly Hamilton is an Assistant Arts Editor and can be reached at [email protected]