Less than a year after the release of “Lover”, Taylor Swift’s 8th studio album, “Folklore”, had a surprise release last Friday. Announced via socials on Thursday, Swift goes into details on how she has coped with the pandemic. For her, that included writing and recording an entire album in isolation, which was her “way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory.” And that is exactly what she does in “Folklore”. It is an ethereal and calm compilation that flows smoothly from song to song in a way that brings you right into her escape.
Compared to past Swift albums, “Folklore” definitely has a different vibe. To start, it is far less country or pop than any previous album. There are no upbeat songs and much of the album has a very heavy tone, combined with emotional and heartbreaking lyrics. Swift was likely inspired by The National’s Aaron Dressner, who co-wrote or co-produced 11 out the 16 songs. It really does feel like “that indie record that’s much cooler than mine”. This album is a quintessential ‘sweater-weather’ album. Swift doubles down on that with a song titled “cardigan”, even having a cozy, oversized cardigan available as merch on her website. While listening, you can just imagine yourself curled up by a fireplace with Jane Eyre and a cup of steaming tea – which is maybe how Swift has been spending her downtime? Because it’s more subdued and minimal than previous albums, “Folklore” is able to draw a point of focus to Swift’s biggest strengths: her songwriting and her ability to tell a story.
One particular standout on this album proves just how great of a storyteller she is: “the last great american dynasty” is a musical history of Rebekah Harkness, the woman who used to own Swift’s current home in Rhode Island. The imagery that comes from the lyrics makes you feel like you’re living in the 20’s, watching Rebekah’s story play out right in front of you.
Swift tells another story through three additional songs: “betty”, “cardigan”, and “august”. She said that within the album, “there’s a collection of three songs I refer to as The Teenage Love Triangle. These three songs explore a love triangle from all three people’s perspectives at different times in their lives” (Taylor Swift, VEVO). By telling a story through multiple songs hidden throughout the album, we really see Swift’s lyrical masterpiece come to life.
“betty” is a standout on the album and is the most similar musically to Swift’s debut album. Complete with a banjo, harmonica, and pedal steel, we experience a more country / folk sound, like we heard in 2006, but with a more mature twist on the sound and lyrics. Another standout is “exile”, the most un-Swift-like song I’ve ever heard. A duet with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, “exile” is a dark and emotional back and forth, with strong piano notes in the background that grow until the climax at the end.
Swift truly stepped out of the role she has been given with “Folklore”. While I am a little disappointed that there aren’t any bangers on the album, I appreciate that she made this album for herself, ditching the desire to create radio singles or the best songs to perform live. As a Swiftie myself, I was really curious to see what she would come up with after being in a long-term relationship, that appears to bring her every bit of happiness. I love that we got to see her tell someone’s else’s story – a story that created a more whimsical, magical, and fantastical album than we’ve seen before.