When it feels like we’ve lost everything, music promises us prosperity and comfort amidst uncertainty and isolation. No artist knows this better than Taylor Swift. The former country-pop megastar recently abandoned her comfort zone with folklore, a radical detour into head-spinning, heart-wrenching songwriting that compiles what critics are heralding as her best album yet.
Through seven albums, Swift’s discography could never be defined. From soothing country, rockier teenage angst, bellowing sadness, jaw-dropping revenge, and idyllic romance, we’ve now been granted music fit for afternoon drives to the cottage, welcomed by the wooden forest and the fruity smell of red wine.
The song that catapulted her into pop stardom was 2012’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” the unmistakably pop-hinted single from her fourth album, Red. In it, Swift would describe the boyfriend she wanted to leave: “You would hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” Coincidentally, eight years later, Swift has concocted one of those very records herself.
Folklore, her first alternative album, uncharacteristically released 17 hours after she announced its existence in late July, is a soothingly melodic compilation of her restless quarantined imagination. This shock release, coupled with a drastic change in music direction, is surprising. Folklore involves beliefs, customs, and stories passed through generations by word-of-mouth, and Swift did just that by sending her critics, media, and fans into a radically intimate spiral of sound. One that harbours the aches of Fall’s approach, the pure breeding ground of infatuation, and nostalgia. By bleeding out such a poetically poised and irresistibly pensive masterpiece in four months, Swift aspires for a timelessness few artists dare to compete against.
Swift is also receiving endless accolades. Folklore debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 while her lead single, “Cardigan,” topped The Hot 100 the same week, becoming the first artist in history to accomplish this feat. Swift has also become the first to debut three songs on The Hot 100’s top six spots. In terms of record sales, folklore became 2020’s biggest album debut in just three days.
Being yet another album written in isolation, albeit Reputation emerged after the fall of her very own, folklorebrings with it the same moment of solitude where Swift improves herself personally and musically through self-reflection, integrating romantic tones to her starkly contradicting lyrical woes.
Isolation is not a hindrance to Swift’s creativity nor her collaborative power. William Bowery, a speculated pseudonym for her boyfriend Joe Alwyn, reveals that their love is both undeniable and private. Starting folklore by tolling a confessional “I” and concluding with a wistful “do” denotes that more could be brewing.
Despite this major redirection, Swift maintains her meticulousness, from the album’s one hour and three minute runtime (Swifties are chuckling) to allusions of rebellious American debutante Rebekah Harkness, whose story mirrors hers. Harkness is her heroine, criticizing society’s treatment of brash women — purposeful yet vastly misunderstood. Meanwhile, “Cardigan,” “August,” and “Betty” feature compelling protagonists Betty, James, and Inez, a sentimental homage to friends Blake Lively and Ryan Reynold’s daughters. No detail is too minuscule for Swift as she crams them into introspective cadences.
The American singer’s diaristic approach reveals her conniving brilliance and assures us we shouldn’t only celebrate her storytelling, but fear it. Jarring lyrics like, “Give you my wild/Give you a child” leaves us sifting through her mind, searching for the very beauty of folklore itself — what is feigned and what is truth. Even her critics grip the letters of woeful lust designed by her methodical pen, which spews the whims her heart contains.
The contrast of folklore to her other albums is in its overt contemplative properties, rather than her usual reflectivity. Folklore embodies a meaningful coherency that her other albums failed to vocalize. Swift acknowledges her past of drama and pining for acceptance, but embraces a future separated from it with emotional complexity.
The melancholic “Exile” articulates this corrosion as pianos fatalistically toll like clocks, foreshadowing the heartbreak in the song’s brutal climax. “Epiphany,” her tear-jerking battle-themed song, is sombre in medical undertones, depicting the coronavirus’ wicked hunting of loved ones. With a muted melody, the scathing words stand alone — the message more important than the delivery.
Meanwhile, folklore’s most romantic and transformative lyric can be found in the song “Peace,” “All these people think love’s for show/But I would die for you in secret.” Swift’s ode to her love in this radio-unfriendly culmination eschews her interest in seeking public approval. No longer feeling condemned by critics, she opts for subdued but rich experimentation to throw them off her track, almost tauntingly. And ironically, she’s gained rave reviews from even the harshest critics.
Her work is strictly stories passed down like folk songs. With folklore dethroning her 2019 album Lover, which dethroned its predecessor Reputation in 2017, for the biggest album debut in US history, Swift’s only real competition is herself. Her vulnerability was thoroughly noted with soft piano melodies as honest as the lyrics that surrounded them. While folklore might not mark the end of her pop ambitions, Swift’s emotional perceptiveness is assured. And as we keep our masks on, Swift takes hers off. Songwriting keeps Swift afloat in the tumultuous seas of life, comforted by knowing that while relationships may come and go, her love of music will save her at the cusp of drowning.