Originally written and published by me for Spectrum Culture.
All things considered, 2020 is turning out to be a fairly entertaining year for pop music. Back in March, when we all had truly no idea what the collective future was going to look like, Dua Lipa floored the gas pedal on Future Nostalgia. Two months later, Lady Gaga took us on a journey to Chromatica and, much like Lipa, wanted us to dance the demons away. Now, out of the blue, Taylor Swift has returned for her eighth studio album—just eleven months after her 2019 pop effort Lover—with the cozy and imaginative world of Folklore, representing the depressive and lovelorn (albeit still lyrically beautiful) side of social isolation.
Unlike the Max Martin-infused Top 40 electropop of 1989 or Reputation, Folklore ventures out into almost completely new territory for Swift genre-wise. In fact, it’s probably her most off-the-map record ever, because even when she was singing country, her pop aspirations were still front and centre. Folklore reunites Swift with long-time collaborator Jack Antonoff as well as new musical partners including The National’s Aaron Dessner, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and songwriter William Bowery. The end result is something that Swift has never quite created before, showcasing her profound ability as a lyricist and storyteller. “In isolation my imagination has run wild and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness,” she shared on social media. “Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history and memory.”
While the album blurs the line between fact and fiction, typically for Swift, Folklore represents the latest stage of her evolution. Each track exercises her long-established skill at emotional lyrics and personal narratives, and while popular culture refused to believe she was singing about anyone but herself in the Speak Now or Red days, it’s a welcome challenge to ponder Swift’s new piano poetry, wondering what was made up and what was not. The lyrics on Folklore are also a far cry from Swift’s lyrics nearly a decade ago, or even last year. “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind for the boys who broke my heart / Now I send their babies presents,” she reflects on “Invisible String,” which sounds light years away from the perspective of the scorned lover who once wrote “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
Folklore’s strongest quality is that it doesn’t feel like a vehicle for some larger purpose or goal: in her Netflix documentary Miss Americana, Swift shared that her entire philosophy as a public figure was founded in making people clap for her. So she began doing whatever it took to keep herself at the top of the pyramid, a narrative that is very much evident on 1989, Reputation and even the peace-making Lover. “I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try / I’m still on that trapeze / I’m still trying everything to keep you looking at me,” she sings on “Mirrorball.” Folklore, however, doesn’t even attempt to be something it’s not: Swift’s first “alternative” record isn’t pretending to be anything more than a gentle, spontaneous collection of lyric poetry. Which is almost even more liberating than the woman who sang last year, “It isn’t love, it isn’t hate, it’s just indifference.”
The narratives on Folklore feel as though they’ve been passed on through generations, like the quiet hum of a video camera that is still rolling in the back of our minds, only confronting the footage when we are forced to be quiet and have nothing else to do but listen. “I think I’ve seen this film before, and I didn’t like the ending,” she and Bon Iver sing on the heart-wrenching “Exile,” making excellent use of their contrasting voices to illustrate two different sides of a relationship that didn’t work out. Similarly, on lead single “Cardigan,” Swift knows no matter how hard we try, we can’t change the ending to certain stories: “I knew you / Tried to change the ending / Peter losing Wendy.”
On “The Last Great American Dynasty,” she reflects on a female figure tortured by what could have been: “Who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been / There goes the most shameless woman this town has ever seen / She had a marvelous time ruining everything.” On “August,” a definite standout track that could almost be a sequel to “Style,” she recalls a long lost summer romance: “But I can see us lost in the memory / August slipped away into a moment in time / ‘Cause it was never mine.” And on “Illicit Affairs,” whose lyrics will surely resonate with queer listeners, she captures the hushed thrills and painful memories of a secret love affair: “And that’s the thing about illicit affairs / And clandestine meetings and longing stares / It’s born from just one single glance / But it dies and it dies and it dies / A million little times.”
Folklore’s best track is arguably “This is Me Trying,” an Antonoff-produced, signature Swift lovelorn ballad about a lover pleading for a second chance. “I’ve been having a hard time adjusting / I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting,” she sings. “I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back / I have a lot of regrets about that.” Its lyrics can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, much like all of Swift’s catalog. This is her trying to be a more informed, educated public figure who uses her platform to advocate for causes she truly cares about. This is her trying to adjust to a new way of life for the foreseeable future, like all of us. But most importantly, this is just her trying to make some music to stay inspired, pass the time and set her soul on fire. And in doing that, she’s created an effortlessly beautiful record to remind us all not to turn a blind eye to the silent films playing out in our own imaginations.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Folklore: “Cardigan,” “The Last Great American Dynasty,” “Exile,” “Mirrorball,” “August,” “This is Me Trying,” “Illicit Affairs,” and “Betty”