Did anyone have "Taylor Swift drops a surprise album" on their COVID bingo card? I've conceived a litany of strange scenarios while we've all been stuck inside, but my favorite artist releasing her eighth studio album while I'm still very much in the throws of the honeymoon stage with last August's Lover was not one I saw coming.
A music journalist I respect and generally cosign, Rob Sheffield, covered folklore better than any of us potentially can, so please, if you care at all, read his review. Then come back here for my usual track-by-track fanatical thoughts and feelings.
On the whole, Taylor Swift has proven her talent. Though she is certainly not exempt from the occasional earworm or appeal to Top 40 radio, she is also famous among her fans for lyrics delicately and intentionally stacked like pearls on a string. Since being awarded the Grammy for Album of the Year with her megahit 2014 release, 1989, she has been generally unacknowledged with her subsequent releases. Don't get me wrong: No one feels badly for Taylor Swift in terms of success, and her sixth and seventh albums did more than fine, but I've always known Taylor to ultimately be introspective and romantic in a way that could just potentially lend itself to a softer sound. Folklore not only proves she is comfortable stripped down, but she soars. If I was the betting type, I would be all-in on this album sweeping the next Grammy cycle.
While folklore is a sonic departure from Taylor's previous offerings, it also challenges an old Swiftian pastime media and fans know all too well (sorry, had to). She makes the rather bold (for her) choice to write almost entirely non-autobiographically. Instead of challenging fans to guess which of her famous ex-boyfriends she's singing about, she wills us to imagine the perspective of a 17-year-old boy or a new money socialite from St. Louis. Each track packed with slant rhyme, cadence change, and knock-you-over-backwards writing, all sixteen deserve their own zoom in.
Many songwriters have gotten mileage from musing about "the one that got away." In fact, Taylor has written from this perspective before. But what's different about this album opener is the almost ambivalent tone of it all. It's not overly sad, or remorseful, or stuffed with contrived wishful thinking. This song feels familiar in a way that isn't expected or boring, but rather comforting like driving through your hometown and seeing that the tiny neighborhood restaurants you took for granted as a kid are still there.
The hook of the song ("It would've been fun/If you could've been the one") isn't complicated or hard to follow, while the bridge ("I persist and resist the temptation to ask you/If one thing had been different, would everything be different today?") flows a little too seamlessly to be as sad as it is. This is one of those hand-clappy, catchy songs that you could totally passively listen to without realizing how much of a downer the lyrics are. And I mean that as a compliment, for the record.
This one is the first of three songs interconnected to tell the story of a summer love triangle. It's punctuated with Taylor's classic Americana imagery of Levi jeans, street lights, and Peter Pan, with details you'll take for granted upon first listen that connect to tracks on the back half of the album. For example, the detail of a narrator who says "I knew everything when I was young. I knew I'd curse you for the longest time, chasing shadows in the grocery line. I knew you'd miss me once the thrill expired, and you'd be standing in my front porch light." But we'll get to that. For now, I find this one stuck in my head all the time, most notably the disjunct rhyme in the second pre-chorus: "I knew you, playing hide and seek, and/Giving me your weekends."
I will say the cardigan metaphor itself is a bit too on-the-nose for me, especially with this being Taylor's first attempt at a folkier sound. The image is slightly trite and not her most creative, but she does love working clothing references into her songs, so we gotta respect tradition.
"the last great american dynasty"
If you didn't know, Taylor Swift is a little bit of a nutcase when it comes to New England folklore. This track feels like the natural progression of the part of her brain that wrote "Starlight," a song about Ethel and Bobby Kennedy that I lovingly refer to as "deranged WASP fanfiction." But this time, Taylor trades idealistic rhymes about marriage and babies for darker, juicier details about the woman who lived in her Watch Hill, Rhode Island home in the fifties. The woman in question: Rebekah Harkness, a fascinating heiress described as "the maddest woman this town has ever seen."
This song reminds us that Taylor is not only a poet, but a lover of research and a collector of weird details. This makes the shift toward the end of the song feel like a real payoff, when she acknowledges her connection to Harkness, through both real estate and perhaps something that runs deeper and more neurotic: "Fifty years is a long time/Holiday House sat quietly on that beach/Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits/And then it was bought by me."
"exile (feat. Bon Iver)"
The only complaint I have about this song has nothing to do with the song itself, but about how indie kids are going to act like Taylor Swift is now "finally" a "legitimate" artist because she's worked with Bon Iver. Don't get me wrong, Justin and co. are great and tremendous heavyweights in the contemporary alt music space, but between this track and Aaron Dessner of The National being credited as the most frequent producer and collaborator on the album overall, I'm very much not looking forward to the frankly misogynistic backhanded compliments to come. As if Taylor--or any female artist--has ever needed to anchor herself to a man or less mainstream artist for any sort of professional success. Okay, rant over. This song is so good and so heartbreaking.
Its composition mirrors that of musical theater, and I mean this as a rave review. In the first verse, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver sings his point of view as a man devastated to see his ex with someone new, shocked at how quickly she moved on. Taylor takes the second verse, from her imagined perspective as a woman who gave her ex so many chances before finally getting fed up. They both sing the chorus once solo: "I think I've seen this film before, and I didn't like the ending/You're not my homeland anymore, so what am I defending?/You were my town, now I'm in exile seeing you out." These isolated verses come together into a duet, leaving the listener with the sad realization that the man and woman in the song are moving in circles around one another, slightly out of sync.
When I say this reminds me of musical theater, I mean it feels similar to those songs in which two characters share the stage, singing the same reprise, but with imagined space between them. Only the audience can see the narrative thread between the two. This is especially evident in the bridge, as Justin sings "You never gave a warning sign," as Taylor echoes "I gave so many signs."
"my tears ricochet"
This is the first of two songs on the album I believe to be about Taylor's very public departure from Big Machine Records and her feud with Scooter Braun. Maybe I'm reaching here, but the parallels are too abundant to be accidental.
The mark of a good writer is his or her ability to tell a clear story through metaphor, making it more universally intriguing. Frankly, a song about how Taylor Swift had six albums worth of masters sold to one of her bullies isn't relatable or figuratively rich. A song about a woman who has died and is watching from the afterlife as her scorned obsessive tormentor shows up to her funeral, however, is fascinating.
Some clues that make me believe the above to be true are peppered throughout the whole song, but here are just a few:
"You wear the same jewels that I gave you as you buried me" as a reference to Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta of Big Machine Records toting her masters (and raking in royalties) as they released hurtful statements about her.
"I can go anywhere I want, just not home" referring to Taylor's contract with Big Machine Records ending, giving her the option to re-sign with BMR or explore other options. Given no option to buy her masters or have ownership of future projects, Taylor made the difficult decision to leave the label she helped create to sign with Republic, where she was given the ability to own her recordings.
"And I still talk to you when I'm screaming at the sky/And when you can't sleep at night you hear my stolen lullabies" is...well...I mean, are you convinced yet?
I'm sure you didn't expect a brief history lesson of Taylor Swift's record label drama in the middle of this review, because frankly you don't need all of that information to enjoy the song. Metaphor or not, it is haunting. It's also the only track on the record penned 100% solo, and yet naysayers are still going to somehow claim the girl doesn't know how to write a song. Reverb and power drums come in handy to remind you this track is aided in production by Jack Antonoff, as are some of my favorite pop and indie songs. I think I've maybe mentioned that factoid no fewer than 50,000 times.
I hope this makes sense: This song feels like that part in the coming-of-age movie when the main character drives themselves out of their hometown. When they're speeding by once-familiar relics, smiling with tears in their eyes. It's not happy nor sad, but rather beautifully ambivalent. Does that make sense even a little bit?
Another production and percussion effort by Antonoff, "mirrorball" is from the perspective of a person who has mastered the art of deflection and wants to show others what they wish to see. If there were ever a beautiful and delicate people pleaser's anthem, this would be it.
Whether at work, in womanhood, in a relationship, or under our family's thumb, we've all at one point related to this song, though it takes a special talent to articulate the feeling. I know I've certainly had a year of feeling as though, "I'm still a believer, but I don't know why/I've never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try/I'm still on that trapeze, I'm still trying everything/To keep you looking at me."
Sonically, a more standard drum kit and loose electric guitar compliment Taylor's softer vocals, a style I believe best suits her abilities as a singer.
Clever title for the seventh song on the album, don't you think? Jokes aside, this song plays with the sweet benevolence of childhood and folklore imagery. Taylor is able to completely step into the shoes of her much younger self and use her writing prowess to imagine the naivety of a little kid. This is perhaps best exhibited in the line, "I've been meaning to tell you, I think your house is haunted/Your dad is always mad, and that must be why." When you're seven years old, that's how you think. You try to make sense of why adults are the way they are, and you suggest to your friend you hide in the closet, play pirates, or move far, far away to make everything better.
We've made it, folks! We have arrived to my favorite song on the album! I think, anyway. If you couldn't tell, I have lots of favorites. Remember that love triangle I mentioned earlier? This is one of the songs in the triad that tells a part of that story; "august" is from the perspective of the other girl. While "cardigan" is the sad and scorned girl whose romantic interest left her for something shiny and new, this song gives said shiny object her own chance to speak. This is a perspective we almost never get to hear from.
"The Other Woman" is a classic character trope adorned with ugly judgments and perceptions. "august" reminds us that the other woman is, at the end of the day, her own person who can get her heart broken, too. That's the perspective of this song's narrator, anyway. Notice how I keep saying "narrator" or "point of view" when referring to this album. Taylor has done such a good job of writing with self-restraint that many of these songs feel like borrowed stories she's been told secondhand, making folklore a very apt title. When I listen to "august" or "cardigan" or a litany of other songs, I don't envision Taylor Swift at all, but rather an imagined character who is an entirely different being.
The being in this song is a young person who made the fatal error of hoping for the best. And God, is that a horrible lesson to learn the hard way. The first time I heard the lyric, "I remember thinking I had you," followed by "'Cause you were never mine," I sat slack-jawed. Because that's it. That's the most awful realization to come to.
The cadence of this song delightfully changes a few times, with my favorite part sitting smack-dab in the middle: "Back when we were still changing for the better/Wanting was enough, for me it was enough/To live for the hope of it all, cancel plans just in case you'd call/Say 'meet me behind the mall'/So much for summer love, and saying 'us'/'Cause you weren't mine to lose."
The detail that clues you in that "august" fits into the love triangle narrative (which, if I haven't mentioned already, is very cool) is in the bridge: "Remember when I pulled up and said 'Get in the car,'" so keep that in mind.
"this is me trying"
Overall, I really love Taylor's vocal style on this album. Assigning herself a limited range with a softer tone suits her well. She's even said herself that she identifies most with being a writer first, singer second. Letting her immense lyrical talents shine and not attempting to sing beyond her means is clear indication that her self-awareness is one of her greatest assets. "this is me trying" is maybe the best example of this on the album.
Another track that can be universally relevant to a range of listeners, whether it be through struggles with addiction, academic ineptitude, mental illness, or some more complicated combination of self-doubts. We can all relate to feeling small, and having to re-evaluate our own perception of what we're able to achieve. Sometimes it's not about what you can do, but about just trying.
This song is not in my top picks list, but with this album, being toward the bottom of the list doesn't mean much. My "least favorites" are still so, so good. Especially when their verses are as lyrically impactful as "You told me all of my cages were mental/So I got wasted like all my potential/And my words shoot to kill when I'm mad/I have a lot of regrets about that."
Talk about an intriguing title! This slow, guitar-picked borderline-hymnal imagines the perspective of a person embroiled in, well, an illicit affair. There is power in giving a voice to the supposed villain and remind ourselves that humans are complex and messy. Often, the "evil" woman involved in a relationship she shouldn't is a person who has been manipulated and taken advantage of, left with no sympathy and no one to help mend her broken heart. As Taylor says: "That's the thing about illicit affairs."
The song builds little by little, to finally arrive to a pleading bridge: "Don't call me kid, don't call me baby/Look at this idiotic fool that you've made me/You taught me a secret language/You know I can't speak with anyone else/And you know damn well, for you I would ruin myself/A million little times."
If you're the type of person who likes to pick at their emotional wounds sometimes (and aren't we all?), this is the perfect track to play when you're sad and just want to zone out and fully soak up your feelings.
Bold of Taylor to plop this adorable, intimate love song between two scornful and sad tracks. But that's part of her charm: A Taylor Swift album is anything but emotionally stagnant. Though this album is on the whole non-autobiographical, if I had to pick one song that I can say with confidence is about boyfriend Joe Alwyn, this it it. Littered with specific details ("Teal was the color of your shirt when you were sixteen at the yogurt shop"), references to Taylor's mega-fame ("Bad was the Blood of the song in the cab on your first trip to LA" / "She said I looked like an American singer"), and little Easter eggs linking to older tracks (such as the "dive bar" referenced both here and in the first line of 2017 single "Delicate"), you can't convince me otherwise.
As I may have mentioned before, success in autobiographical writing comes from a careful balance of detail. Make it specific and unique to you, but let everyone in and find something to relate to. You can come from all walks of life and have never worn the same colors or been to the same places, but you get the idea of being tied to another person by "some invisible string." Plucked violin and viola are fun auditory details to remind us, no, this isn't a pop album.
We've made it to the second song on the album I interpret as an "eff you" to Scooter Braun. In fact, it literally is! It only took us nearly a decade and a half, but we finally get to hear Taylor Swift sing the F-word in a song. Woohoo! Wait until country radio hears about this controversy!
Speaking of country music and the F-word in question, it's not just thrown in there for lack of reason or impact. Quick music industry lesson: Music Row in Nashville houses several record labels, including Big Machine and a smaller Nashville subsidiary of Taylor's current musical home, Republic Records. It is often tradition for labels to display the success of their artists by hanging banners or other signage in front of their buildings to congratulate new releases or accomplishments. When Taylor released her 7th studio album, Lover, Republic more than likely displayed her face and album cover in front of their office. And the delicious part here is that Big Machine execs definitely had to pass this to and from work, making the lyric "What do you sing on your drive home?/Do you see my face in the neighbor's lawn?/Does she smile, or does she mouth/'Fuck you forever'" such a tasty little nail in the coffin.
But for those of us who aren't feuding with Scooter Braun, this track is still an impactful, empowering feminist anthem. With last year's single "The Man," Taylor gave us a radio-friendly, ultra-pop tune to sassily sing in the car, whereas this year we're given a much meatier, darker song to reflect on. Because it's true: Have you ever noticed how often men will call women crazy or angry, not at all acknowledging the part they had to play? Taylor smartly sums it up: "Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy/What about that?/And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry/And there's nothing like a mad woman, what a shame she went mad/No one likes a mad woman, you made her like that."
If it wasn't clear that this album came together amidst a pandemic, this song offers the reminder. Beginning with references to Taylor's own grandfather, fighting in the Battle of Guadalcanal and experiencing physical and mental trauma, the second verse of the track finds itself in modern times. The lyric "hold your hand through plastic now" incites images of nurses and family members caring for sick loved ones through plastic barriers to slow the spread of germs. The choruses and bridge act as the glue holding together the parallel of soldiers and frontline workers, both serving and protecting.
For my personal taste, there's not enough happening here sonically to keep me listening over and over again, but every album needs a little bit of filler. It's perfectly good filler, don't get me wrong.
"Betty I won't make assumptions about why you switched your homeroom, but I think it's 'cause of me." Bam. Hello! I'm here! I'm in the mind of a teenager; totally sold. With a strong harmonica introduction and a simple acoustic chord pattern, I could see this song fitting in both on her debut record, as well as a long lost Bruce Springsteen album.
"Betty" is the final piece to the love triangle narrative, this time from the perspective of James, the boy who left Betty (the narrator of "cardigan") for a summer fling that didn't last ("august"). This song is nearly five minutes, the longest on the album, and manages to navigate two bridges and a key change effortlessly.
Many fans have a soft spot for this song as what they're calling a "gay anthem," and the beauty here is it totally could be. There's no reason why this fictional love triangle couldn't be between three girls, and ultimately that's up to personal interpretation. Culturally, there's a huge problem with LGBT+ representation in music, and a lot of artists are so annoyingly steadfast with their use of insistent pronouns to make sure their listeners don't get "the wrong idea." I admire Taylor's use of vagueness here to give all of her fans the opportunity to project a love story that sits best with each of us.
The reason we know Betty is the girl from "cardigan" is the intentional use of bridging details like front porches and cobblestone. Similarly, "betty" and "august" share the image of a girl pulling up and saying "Get in." While each song could totally have a life of its own, it's admittedly very fun to step back and admire the tapestry Taylor has woven.
I can't wait to force-feed this song to everyone I know; there's something universally pleasing about it. Plus, Taylor restrains herself from using any era-defining imagery, so this triad could take place any time in the past, present, or future. I guarantee this one is an enduring summer love song.
This song doesn't get enough credit. It is gorgeous, honest, and begs the question, "Would it be enough, if I could never give you peace?"
Taylor seems to be the only one of us who has benefited from isolation. While we were baking banana bread and rewatching sitcoms, she was writing honest lyrics about loving someone while not feeling good enough for them. "peace" leans on synthesizer more than any other song on the album, a sound Taylor has become very familiar with since her 80s synth-pop inspired 1989. But it's different here: small and steadfast, almost as if to keep time as Taylor spills her guts. My favorite, most "oof, I felt that" lyrics live in the second verse: "Your integrity makes me seem small/You paint dreamscapes on the wall/I talk shit with my friends/It's like I'm wasting you honor." It's one of my favorites, and I can't wait to cry-sing along to it next time I'm feeling extra sensitive. Is that TMI?
It has become obvious (to me, anyway) that Taylor Swift has done a lot of growing and maturing. This being the first album released in her 30s, it is evident that her views on love, forgiveness, and the arguing in-between have calmed substantially. We would have never gotten a song like this when she was nineteen, or twenty-two, or even twenty-six. I love that she's seemingly learned the difference between bad people and good people who do bad things, as we're all prone to do.
Again, this isn't my favorite song from a musical standpoint. As a friend to the album, I will admit I find it a bit boring. But to be the "worst" song on folklore is like being the MLB player with the worst batting average. Like, hello, you're still in the big leagues. You're still so, so good.
Overall, I see this album as Taylor's most self-assured and honest. It is the most sonically cohesive and even-measured, making it almost blasphemous to believe it was written and produced entirely during this pandemic. It is an absolute honor and joy to have been a Taylor Swift fan for as long as I have, because when all the music snobs listen to this one and finally jump on the bandwagon, I can turn around from my shotgun seat and say, "God, finally. What took you so long?"