Taylor Swift’s eighth studio album folklore fittingly opens with the line, “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit.” Indeed, she is on new shit. Unlike her previous records, Taylor Swift decided to spare fans and detractors with months of needless hints across social media, “revealing” magazine cover stories, contrived aesthetic changes, and talks of “a new era,” and instead quietly announced on Instagram that she had written and recorded an entire record in the isolation of quarantine.
This isn’t only surprising because Swift’s last record Lover was released less than a year ago and promised a slew of tour dates taking the singer all across the globe this summer; but for an artist who historically has made a career out of micromanaging and over-constructing every fathomable aspect of her image and music, it’s refreshing to see that, for once, she’s letting her music speak for itself.
So, what exactly does folklore have to say? Turns out that, quite similar to its own release, the record isn’t interesting in what it has to say, but how it’s saying it. Like I mentioned in my review of 2017’s Reputation, this record – folklore – is exactly the type of album Swift should have released years ago: stripped back, understated, and doing everything to highlight the strengths of her vulnerable songwriting and sweet voice. Luckily, she was finally able to accomplish that, in large part due to Aaron Dessner, member of the folksy indie band The National and producer and co-writer for 11 of folklore’s 16 tracks. Adding even more indie authenticity, Bon Iver aka Justin Vernon lends his vocals and songwriting to “exile,” perhaps the best track on the album.
Much like 1989 saw Swift abandon country for pop, Reputation abandoned pop for hip-hop and club music, and Lover abandoned hip-hop for synth-pop, folklore marks Swift’s first foray into lo-fi indie folk. Gone is the glossy overproduction, autotune, and needless sampling; instead, thoughtful acoustic guitar, melodic piano, and occasionally strings prop up Swift’s haunting vocals. On tracks like “seven,” “invisible string,” and “hoax,” we hear the depth and expertise Dessner deploys in doing so much with so little. On “invisible string,” which features some of Swift’s most poetic musings of how a guiding hand of fate led her to her current boyfriend, actor Joe Alwyn — (“hell was the journey [to you] but it brought me heaven”) — we hear plucky guitar and soothing orchestration reminiscent of Andrew Bird’s work. All that’s missing is some thoughtful whistling.
The previously mentioned “exile” mostly features solitary piano and meaningful harmonies between Vernon and Swift, leaving nothing but the lyrics to paint the most haunting portrait. Clearly conceived as a break-up track, “exile” also feels strongly evocative of another relationship currently fraying at the seams: the one between America and its own people. Not forgetting that this record was created and produced amidst the current pandemic civil rights movement spreading across the U.S., the following lines exemplify every aspect of international and domestic conflict:
“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, seein’ you out / I think I’ve seen this film before.”
With more than one critic comparing the current time in history to something out of a post-apocalyptic movie, I like to think Swift is playing with that political dynamic now that she’s finally gotten involved in some politics herself.
The current times do make a marked appearance on the record in the form of “epiphany,” a deeply dark and depressing number that goes head-first into capturing what medical professionals are going through right now. With lines like “something med school did not cover / someone’s daughter, someone’s mother / holds your hand through plastic now,” Swift characterizes physicians and nurses like soldiers on the front lines of war. Her sentiment is certainly heartfelt, but the song is so tonally strange on a record that also features tracks about summer flings, cheating on your partner, and feeling like a disco ball.
(The disco ball track, by the way, is “mirrorball,” unsurprisingly co-written and co-produced by Jack Antonoff. Everything you need to know about the glittery, shimmery track is how Swift sees herself as a disco ball, shining light on all people but feeling so fragile and capable of shattering at any second. In a complete moment of self-awareness, setting aside both the false persona from Reputation and rainbow-unicorn-hopeless-romantic aesthetic from Lover, Swift admits to us all, “I’m still on that trapeze / I’m still trying everything to keep you looking at me.”)
Taylor Swift inadvertently reveals a whole other aspect of herself early in the record’s runtime with “last great american dynasty” – and I cannot stop thinking about it. The track explores the world of real-life heiress Rebekah Harkness, a woman who married into the Standard Oil family and consequently inherited a great deal of wealth. First, Swift rightfully pokes fun at how the patriarchy blames women for everything – not unlike Lover’s “The Man” – with the line, “The doctor told him to settle down / it must have been her fault his heart gave out.” But then, Swift does everything she can to create an air of sympathy for a woman who profited off an oil dynasty.
Isn’t it so revealing and telling that Swift chose Harkness’ story to tell; one about an insanely rich white woman who was also a composer, known for throwing lavish parties, marrying four husbands, and most importantly, previously owning Swift’s $17 million dollar Rhode Island home, which has been featured in the press regularly since Swift purchased it in 2013. On such a sonically stripped back record with genuinely emotional and vulnerable moments, Taylor draws what she intends to be an empowering line between one rich white woman owning a lavish house to the next rich white woman who owns it now: herself. While this might have seemed like a Girl Power signifier back when she was regularly throwing parties with models like Karlie Kloss, Gigi Hadid, and Cara Delevinge in 2016, in light of the current pandemic when people are regularly being evicted from homes they can’t even afford to own, this feels wildly tone deaf.
The last strange missteps of the album are what fans are already referring to as the “Teenage Love Triangle” songs, “cardigan,” “august,” and “betty” – each of which feature a focused perspective on one of three teenagers involved in a summertime, love-triangle romance. While the concept of the tracks in themselves could be interesting, the core of the songs feel trite and lack substance. “Cardigan,” which Swift chose as folklore’s lead single for some reason, fails the most in saying something new. Melodically, there’s unique rhythms, thoughtful perspectives, and changing rhymes in the trilogy that tap into Swift’s catchy songwriting tool box, but emotionally, they’re all about a fleeting summer love amongst teenagers before school starts back up in the fall. Nothing new is happening here. Each song feels more like an experiment in which Swift asked herself, what if I wrote something reminiscent of my early, naive records, but cool and indie-sounding instead of country? I’m not sure why the “Teenage Love Triangle” is on this album.
So, should Taylor Swift be crowned as the new quarantine savior and cottage-core indie queen with folklore? Definitely not. Artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Laura Marling, and Angel Olsen – to name a few – already exist and the work they’ve been doing in this sphere for years is incredible. Swift’s intentions behind creating a stripped-back, lo-fi indie album made in isolation are noteworthy and the production and sentiments of songs like “exile,” “my tears ricochet,” and “peace” cannot be ignored. But I still can’t help but feel like folklore exists as a temporary experiment in utilizing indie authenticity. When concerts eventually come back, will Taylor Swift perform these songs acoustically with a scrappy crew and at small, indie venues that are currently in danger of shutting down? Of course not. So, for now, I appreciate and value the experiment and dig the moments on folklore that are real, but we need to see this for what it is: Taylor Swift experimenting with being a cool indie folk kid for a day.
folklore rating: 6.5/10
Highlights: “exile,” “invisible string,” “my tears ricochet”