Photo credit: Beth Garrabrant
The one thing 2020 was guaranteed not to deliver was another Taylor Swift album – it was a year ago that the singer released her seventh album, Lover, and fans are still deliberating over which song should have been the next radio single, campaigning with their usual fire-fueled ferocity for their dear leader. Instead, Pennsylvania’s Opry pop princess deviated from her standard two-year album cycle and surprised the world with folklore, a cottage-core case study executive-produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner.
Swift’s releases are dissected under the microscope and discussed at lengths unheard of among modern-day musicians, except for Beyoncé, perhaps. The country singer who shed teardrops on her guitar and reminisced about Tim McGraw brought us into her freshest, juiciest diary entries upon each new release and developed a fever-pitched hysteria about the subjects of her songs. What intimate, relational details about her lovers (or her frenemies) would she spill? What Easter eggs did she hide along the way? As she matured, she blossomed into a full-fledged, capital-P Popstar, and flamed tabloid mania with her gradual disappearance from the public sphere and the longest romantic relationship of her career with actor Joe Alwyn (the source of British-tinged lyrics in her recent material). Now, she’s graced us with her eighth studio album folklore.
As a complete work, folklore is an enticing record. It makes yet another case for proving its creator as one of the greatest songwriters of her generation, blending wistful pleas and nostalgic longing with her signature in-the-moment observational style. Once known to caterwaul over the wrongdoings of snarky cheerleaders, Swift is now entering the bodies and minds of subjects she could never have known – or maybe even never existed. A much-hyped teenage love triangle anchors the album’s emotional core in three songs (“betty”, “cardigan” and “august”) that tell the lustful story from each participant’s unique perspective at a different time in their lives – and also serves as a public baby name reveal for Swift’s pals, actors Ryan Reynolds & Blake Lively (James, Inez and Betty are the three characters in the triangle and the names of Reynolds’ and Lively’s three children). These songs show strong, empathetic sensitivity from the songwriter as she puts three different pairs of shoes on and captures impulses, bruises and regrets in each take.
Frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff (1989, Reputation, Lover) returns for six songs on folklore and each is a separate high point on the record, owing to the trusting, creative relationship the two have built. Antonoff’s work tends to draw incredibly personal details and sounds from his collaborating artists. Here, that plays out in songs like “my tears ricochet”, one of the record’s deepest gut punches that catalogs Swift’s tumultuous departure from Big Machine Records and the subsequent sale of the label (and her master recordings along with it) by Scott Borchetta to Scooter Braun. The song is written from the perspective of the ghost of a former lover and employs imagery that recalls scorn and discontent for her treatment at the hands of these men: “You wear the same jewels that I gave you // As you bury me,” references her six astronomically successful records released under Big Machine that are now hostage victims held by hostile captors. “I can go anywhere I want // Anywhere I want, just not home,” she mourns as she releases her second record with Republic Records and remembers the label that helped her rise to superstardom. With Antonoff producing, the song builds gravitas with an ethereal backing choir, tenor sax and drumbeats that ricochet, too.
At sixteen songs and coming in at just over an hour, the standard edition of the album could still endure one last round of editing. The experience doesn’t diminish the high highs or the homogenized listening experience of the record, aided by Dessner’s deft hands at the boards. In particular, “invisible string” stands apart as a Swiftian triumph, both new and familiar, both romantic and innocent. The song explores with appreciable naïveté, the simple idea that an invisible thread ties Swift and her lover together and that’s how they found each other, and now she’s a better person because of it. “Cold was the steel of my ax to grind for the boys who broke my heart // Now I send their babies presents,” is a line that only Taylor Swift could sell with earnestness.
In a year filled with unpredictable plot twists, a surprise Taylor Swift album was uncalled for but welcomed with open arms, smashing records as it debuted atop the charts and outsold everything else this year in a matter of days. Her outsized presence exposes the album to critiques, whether they be that the album is too homogenized, too reductive of the indie world, or simply too safe. Safe isn’t what we want from our biggest stars but it’s often what they deliver, unwilling to sacrifice their perch atop the industry in a cozy cardigan. But as the songwriting continues to impress, it’s impossible not to look at where Swift has been and notice how much she’s grown and where she’s going. Mostly because she’s laid it all out for us.