How much have you done in lockdown? If you’re Taylor Swift, you’ve written and released an entire new album, and it might just be her best yet. Rachel Roberts delves headfirst beneath Swift’s sultry amalgamation of folk, alternative rock, and indie, folklore, and unpicks the seams of perhaps her most multifarious record to date.
Less than a year after the release of her last album Lover, Swift announced on the 23rd July that she would be dropping her eighth album folklore, at midnight the following day. An uncharacteristic choice – Swift’s record’s typically feature a prolonged build-up to release day, filled with teasers and easter-eggs fans that have become accustomed to.
In light of this, there was perhaps the potential for folklore to not carry as well as her previous releases, but the album was streamed 82 million times on the day of it’s release, the highest ever tally for a female artist, and sold 846k copies in a single week in the US; the best-selling figures of any record across the whole year. Reviews across the board were also overwhelmingly positive (see: NME, The Guardian, Pitchfork), and the record helped Swift to become the first female artist to have seven albums debut at #1.
One of the things a lot of Swift’s audience connect with most in her song-writing is the power of her storytelling. As the title suggests, folklore carries with it a sense of fragmented stories whispered down through time. The pieces are waiting to be put together – all you have to do is listen. But on this record, it is hard to know what is a story and what is real. These are evidently songs from a personal place, but as fan theories suggest, a fictional teenage love-triangle seems to be woven through the course of the sixteen tracks.
You can tell this record is a product of lockdown; an imagination run wild inventing stories which are played out across a beautifully folk-inspired soundtrack. An album of many shades – folklore is at once dreamy, whimsical and atmospheric, evoking a feeling that can only be comparable to a winsome walk in the woods, and deeply introspective and tragic.
Here, you never quite know who the story is about, or who is telling it
Harking back to themes explored on her reputation album, the record carries a sharpness and even a bitterness in places – making it perhaps amongst the most diverse of her discography. Whilst much like reputation, folklore‘s aesthetic is stylised in black and white, and in lowercased lettering, its subject matter is very different – distanced from her in the way that reputation was deeply personal and, well, all about her reputation. Here, you never quite know who the story is about, or who is telling it.
Themes of youth and innocence are explored across the album in very evocative ways. Seven is the pinnacle of this for Swift personally – a track where she reflects on the freedom felt as a child climbing the trees of Pennsylvania and screaming in the weeds “before I learned civility”, through long, dreamy vocals and childhood promises.
The aforementioned love-triangle deals exclusively in the misjudgements of youth. It would be easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it, but fans have deftly pieced together that this story is told through the trio of songs cardigan, august and betty – a point-of-view for each party. Lead single cardigan is full of insecurity and reassurance, and cinematically builds with defiance at the notion of youth’s ignorance, with the insistence, “I knew everything when I was young”.
Towards the end of the album, however, betty tells the frivolous story of James, a lovesick jock character who is revealed to have cheated on his high-school girlfriend in a track that is typical Swift storytelling. Whilst cardigan is very slick, betty is perhaps the ‘folkiest’ song on the album, and in further contrast, hooks around the idea of youth’s ignorance in that James is “only seventeen” and “[doesn’t] know anything.” With a coy reference to “standing in your cardigan,” Betty can be placed as the song’s narrator, but as James explains how he was drawn away by an unnamed girl who pulled up next to him with the words “get in, let’s drive,” we are made aware of a third-party in the triangle.
Invisible string is an exercise in personal storytelling; it’s gentle plucking guitars taking the listener on a journey through time and development
The intermedial track is august, which creates the feeling of a summer’s afternoon through its easy guitars and steady tempo. However, it builds with the fever of a hot summer’s night as the female voice reminisces on her own place in the story; when she “pulled up and said ‘get in the car’,” and was forced to recognise that James “wasn’t [her’s] to lose”.
The fragments of these stories scattered across the album show how much Swift has mapped this out. For an audience used to finding hidden teasers in her work, figuring these storylines out is very much in character, but the songs stand easily on their own.
folklore is not all fictional though, and invisible string is an exercise in personal storytelling; it’s gentle plucking guitars taking the listener on a journey through time and development over the course of Swift’s relationship with her boyfriend. Contrastingly, the indie-inspired mirrorball feels like self-reflection whilst dreaming at a disco, and the airy and honest peace delicately asks questions which stem from a place of fear. For all the fiction, there is a lot on introspection on this album.
Tracks my tears ricochet and mad woman carry darker, bitter tones reminiscent of the reputation era, but show greater maturity rather than vengeance as they explore dark themes of betrayal and double standards. In yet another deft nod to her past art, mad woman feels like a darker extension of Lover‘s The Man.
Overall, folklore is an extremely cohesive collection – thoroughly deserving of the praise it has received
While my tears ricochet depicts a funeral, the more morbid track epiphany is the record’s most atmospheric and ethereal; referencing soldiers bleeding on the beaches and doctors holding patient’s hands through plastic in hospital beds. A snap back into the real world, it is at once the most haunting song on the record and the most beautiful.
Some tracks, however, fall somewhat flat compared to the rest of the album – namely the final song hoax which feels a rather dreary point to end on, and this is me trying, which builds strongly despite its slow start, but can feel dreary at times.
Overall, folklore is an extremely cohesive collection – thoroughly deserving of the praise it has received. Swift has proven herself as someone who can master a wide range of genres, yet this sultry, storytelling style seems made for her with the weight it lends to lyrics. She tells stories like no-one else, and this has been the basis of her success: flowing deftly between genres and earning her reputation as one of the best female solo artists of her time. No fanfare? No problem. The album she was born to make has not disappointed.
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