As it goes, life is not simply made up of rights and wrongs, yeses and noes, or good and bad. Perhaps being in lockdown has given ample opportunity to be more introspective — to look at life within and around us and deeply reflect on any emotions evoked. And just as traditional folklore tells us tales rooted in the human condition, Taylor Swift delivers powerfully spiritual stories on every track on “folklore.”
The surprise release of “folklore” on July 24 adds to the credo of the album’s innermost core. On her social media, a day before the “folklore’s” release, Swift posted, “Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed.” This album has become less about making the most sales and more about sharing her songs.
Indeed, “folklore” is a novel approach for Swift in many respects. Collaborations with Jack Antonoff, Bon Iver, and Aaron Dessner on the album have helped Swift usher in a new sound of indie-folk and chamber pop to her repertoire. Piano melodies adorn a significant amount of the tracks, beginning with the first song, “the 1.” Fans of Antonoff will recognize this balladry similar to his previous works on Lorde’s “Melodrama” and Lana Del Ray’s “Norman F***ing Rockwell!” The resonating, slow notes of tracks like “cardigan” and “epiphany” carry a very reminiscent sound to Dessner’s band The National.
Bon Iver’s talent for sentimental songwriting is complemented well on the fourth track, “exile.” This song sees Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Swift tell a story of a breakup where Vernon laments on how quickly things moved on and Swift sings of toxic signs in the relationship. This storytelling, however, is not met with a sense of up-righteousness but rather vulnerability as Swift sings, “I think I’ve seen this film before / And I didn’t like the ending / …So I’m leaving out the side door,” as she recognizes the harmful pattern.
Themes of directness continue in the track “this is me trying,” where Swift admits to her faults, including her ‘mental cages’ and getting “wasted like all my potential.” The openness turns into maturation with “illicit affairs,” Swift’s acknowledgment to a more understanding view of infidelity, and “peace,” her concession to the bitter complications of being in love.
Within the motif of comes the story of Betty and James, which is told through the three tracks “cardigan,” “august,” and “betty.” These are interesting asides as the album keeps bringing back the two lover’s stories as Betty gains her self-worth after James’s disloyalty. This side-story also introduces the motif of feminism to “folklore,” most epitomized on the song “the last great american dynasty.” Here Swift tells the story of Rebekah Harkness, whom people blamed for her husband Bill Harkness’s death despite him dying from a heart attack. Swift, who had bought a mansion once owned by Rebekah Harkness, pays due respect to undervalued value.
If there is anything to be said against this album, it is that the intense passion felt of earlier Swift works such as “Red.” Although the songs may sound like any other Antonoff or Dessner piece, Swift isn’t as heart-wrought in her vocal performances as the tones of the songs would suggest. Otherwise, this is a wholly admirable change of style for Taylor Swift going into the new decade. With “folklore,” she is actively bucking her label of whiny pop-diva and listening to this record, her growth as a person is more than tangible.