Taylor Swift’s New Album “folklore” Might Just Be Her Magnum Opus
“folklore” is the kind of album that we get when Taylor Swift doesn’t hold anything back
When I first listened to folklore, I cried. I was in the middle of the first track, entitled “the 1,” and I just began sobbing. That’s never happened with a Taylor Swift release before. I didn’t cry when reputation came out, not even a tear when Lover dropped. Swift’s music doesn’t move me in the same way Sara Bareilles’ does—to me, Swift’s music, while it’s something I have always loved, has never been visceral. Until today.
folklore, her 8th studio album—and a surprise drop at that—is the result of her imagination running wild in isolation. It’s a “collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness,” she wrote in the album’s liner notes. “Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory.” It’s her take at toeing the line between reality and fiction, something oft-explored in media, and, I’d argue, oft-explored in Swift’s own body of work.
After all, this is the same songwriter that gave us “Starlight,” a fun bop about Robert and Ethel Kennedy, after she saw a picture of the couple; “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” supposedly inspired by Netflix’s Something Great; “Love Story,” her most enduring hit to date, and it’s a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. At her core, Swift has always been a storyteller. Before anything else, before she thinks of herself as a singer, a celebrity, a pop star, she is a weaver of words and narratives. And she’s a pretty darn good one, too.
folklore, with the album track titles all stylized in lowercase, tells various stories that aren’t necessarily hers, but have become hers in the process. During creation, these tales and myths that she’s strung together have melded to become part of her essence. She begins the album with a piano, like in Miss Americana, but unlike Miss Americana, the notes here aren’t soft or dainty. They’re strong, almost self-assured. In that first track of the album, we already hear how different it is from her past pop offerings. Swift has always had the voice for something more contemporary, and in this folk-alternative pop-indie album she’s released today, it shows. Her voice in folklore has a different quality to it—it’s velvety, almost, and it rises above the production, while still being the perfect complement to each other.
In the first track, “the 1,” she sings about an alternate life in which an ex-love of hers was the one she would end up with. “But we were something, don’t you think so / Roaring twenties, tossing pennies in the pool / And if my wishes came true / It would’ve been you,” she sings in the chorus. Instantly, that line in the middle, “Roaring twenties, tossing pennies in the pool,” comes to life, as if the ones surrounding it were in black-and-white.
In the slow and almost sensual “cardigan,” the album’s lead single, she alludes to New York City once more, as she has done frequently in the past—“Welcome to New York,” “False God,” “Cornelia Street”—and it pins us to a specific memory, one we might not have seen or experienced, but one that we can immediately visualize. “And when I felt like I was an old cardigan / Under someone’s bed / You put me on and said I was your favorite,” Swift sings in the refrain, in thematic contention with the chorus from reputation’s “Dress”: “Only bought this dress so you can take it off.” In “cardigan,” she sings of a different kind of intimacy—one that needs no baring of skin; one that exists plainly and simply.
She sings about more characters: Rebekah Harkness in “the last great american dynasty,” a mistress in “illicit affairs,” a soldier in “epiphany,” James in “betty.” She assumes the persona of these characters, giving listeners new perspectives and new experiences that she can pass on. “I’ve told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve,” she said. “Now it’s up to you to pass them down.” But what Swift does in folklore, and wonderfully so, is distill the experience of deep and utter longing and pining into one well-recorded and well-produced album. Swift hones in on sadness, sorrow, and most of all, ache:
- “And it would’ve been sweet / If it could’ve been me,” in “the 1”
- “But I knew you’d linger like a tattoo kiss,” in “cardigan”
- “I can see you standing, honey / With his arms around your body,” in “exile”
- “And I can go anywhere I want / Anywhere I want, just not home,” in “my tears ricochet”
- “Before I learned civility / I used to scream ferociously / Any time I wanted,” in “seven”
- “Wanting was enough / For me, it was enough / To live for the hope of it all,” in “august”
- “It's hard to be anywhere these days when all I want is you,” in “this is me trying”
- “It’s born from just one single glance / But it dies and it dies and it dies / A million little times,” in “illicit affairs”
- “But you dream of some epiphany / Just one single glimpse of relief / To make some sense of what you’ve seen,” in “epiphany”
- “But I would die for you in secret,” in “peace”
- “Don’t want no other shade of blue but you / No other sadness in the world would do,” in the last song, “hoax”
Where her two previous records, reputation and Lover felt detached in a way, folklore feels like a return to her roots, like a homecoming. In this album, she is honest and real. folklore is what we get when Swift doesn’t hold anything back, when she just writes and sings what is in her heart, whether those experiences are hers or not.
But it leaves one wondering just how much Swift has been doing this throughout her entire career—she’s made her songs an exercise in how much her fans can mine meanings and experiences out of it, all relating to her personal life, but it does well to remember that she’s always been good at constructing and manufacturing narratives, whether in her songs or in her public image.
This album might just be her greatest one yet. Her past work has built up to this very moment, and most of all, her courage and bravery. She’s been working her way, slowly and surely, to get to this place where she can cut herself open and give all of herself without holding back, and we are all the more blessed for it.
Lead photo from @taylorswift