Folklore: a review and analysis of Taylor Swift’s new surprise eighth album
Out of nowhere, on July 23rd, Taylor Swift shocked the world by announcing she was dropping her eighth studio album Folklore at midnight. The album has been largely composed with new collaborator Aaron Dessner, best known for his work with alternative rock band The National, who says Swift approached him in April to work on some songs together and ended up completing 11 songs together. The album comes as a surprise as Swift only released her previous album Lover back in August 2019, which saw Swift returning to brighter pure pop music and moving away from the darker turn she took on Reputation. Taylor stated that she drew upon all of her “whims, dreams, fears and musings” while writing the album and that she got to work with some of her “musical heroes” with the album boasting other collaborators such as frequent writing partner Jack Antonoff and indie-folk staple Bon Iver. This information coupled with the woodsy sepia-toned aesthetic Swift introduced the campaign with suggests she would be pivoting from the pop sounds for her past three eras and shifting towards a more alternative sound. It makes sense then for Swift to eschew the traditional album rollout in favor of using her already established platform to launch a less commercial album.
The album starts with “The 1” is an immediate change of pace from Swift’s most recent material, going for a more organic piano-led sound, with minimal percussion & electronic accents. Swift casts herself in the role of someone reminiscing on a past love, about their experiences as a couple during their twenties and confessing that she wishes they could have been soulmates. Swift muses that some of the beauty in their past relationship is that it never worked out, pointing out that some of the greatest romances in history have ended & potentially great films were never made. It’s a wistful beginning that allows Swift to capture the nostalgia of the proposed story while infusing the melancholy nature of a faded relationship. On “Cardigan”, Swift’s narrator deliberates over a romantic relationship that began in their youth, commenting on the belief held by older generations that the younger people around them are lacking in knowledge due to their inexperience. Swift’s narrator recalls touchstone events in their past such as strolling through the High Line in New York City and being drunk under streetlights, even recalling their separation and comparing it to the young love and separation of Peter Pan and Wendy. Swift’s narrator has an unyielding sense of hope that the relationship could be rekindled, much in the same way one never really gives up on their first love in real life and finds comfort in the way this young love made them feel special — referencing a cardigan which could serve as a lingering physical memento of the past relationship. The production here is led by piano again but is lusher than its predecessor, adding in melancholic violins and a buoyant Mellotron riff that allows Swift to achieve the mix of tragedy behind the song’s tale with the narrator’s enduring optimism about the relationship. “The Last Great American Dynasty” sees Swift taking her unique brand of descriptive storytelling to paint a picture of Rebekah Harkness, who previously owned Swift’s Rhode Island house called Holiday House. Swift paints the tale of a middle-class divorced woman who marries into a wealthier upper-class family but finds her brand of femininity doesn’t fit the societal ideals of how an upper-class wife should behave. Harkness was spurned by her community & blamed for the death of her then-husband and the fall of his family’s name. In response, she embraced her outcast status, bringing in her old friends to have fun with her despite their entertainment not being in line with the standards of upper-class society at the time. Swift draws a comparison between Harkness and herself as she enters the timeline to buy the property that stood in silence after Harkness’s death, as Harkness had suffered much malignment from the press and criticism of her behavior much in the same way Swift has constantly experienced throughout her career. The production isn’t far removed from Swift’s more pop-focused work but firmly keeps the alternative influences and classical instruments that keep the track’s sound within the more mature sound of the album. Bon Iver is brought in to play the other half of the failed couple at the center of “Exile”, a dramatic string-laden piece that serves as an unspoken conversation between the former lovers. Bon Iver plays the jilted lover in disbelief at his ex’s ability to move on quickly, unable to come to grips with the feeling of being discarded and grappling with his jealousy at seeing her with someone else. Swift derides his lingering protectiveness over her and his callousness towards her current relationship, expressing her exhaustion at the amount of leeway she offered him throughout their past relationship and refusing to allow him to make her feel guilty for moving on. Swift goes on to insist she gave warning signs that the relationship was eroding while Bon Iver protests, saying he couldn’t be expected to read her mind. They bemoan the loss of familiarity and comfort they felt with each other but demonstrate the lack of communication between them that led to their breakup, as Swift and Bon Iver end up singing over each other rather than fully listening and responding to each other, sounding like an argument with no fruitful end. The song begins with sparse piano before building to a climax as it adds its strings & synths, mimicking the rising argument between Swift and Bon Iver. “My Tears Ricochet” is the first song Swift wrote for the album and sees Swift singing to someone from the perspective of their deceased lover, reflecting on the tension and toxicity in their past relationship. Swift contemplates how despite all the torment he offered her and swearing to cut her off, he is still at her funeral and wishing she was still alive but she brushes him aside, illustrating his carelessness towards her sadness. She goes on to mention how they gathered stones, likely weaponizing the flaws they saw in each other and to draw each other into marriage, as Swift mentions a diamond ring. She uses language drawn from warfare such as mentioning how her tears ricochet and likening their tension to battleships that will sink beneath the waves. The production from Swift & Antonoff assists in bolstering the song’s intentions, adding reverb to Swift’s ad-libs during the bridge when she is talking to her lover to portray Swift as a ghost unable to fully communicate with her still-alive lover and adding vocoder to her vocals during the chorus to further depict her deceased state.
“Mirrorball” sees Swift comparing herself to a disco ball, specifically to the reflective quality and promising to reveal to the listener every facet of themselves. The song feels like a message from Swift to her fans about herself, referencing how devastated she is when her heart breaks as revealed by her confessional work on past albums. She goes on to mention that she “spins in her highest heels” on her “tallest tip-toes” for the listener, even when the end is near and mentions the “masquerade revelers” who get “drunk as they watch my shattered edges glisten”, likely a reference to the media who have usually mined her material and personal traumas for tabloid fodder in the past as well as to her detractors, who usually use her personalized messages in her material to criticize her. Swift even reassures listeners as things go awry doing the bridge, attempting to keep them distracted as the world seemingly crumbles around them before promising again to show the listener themselves tonight, likely referencing the relatability and comfort fans have long found in her songs. The production is dreamy and incorporates folksier melodies with jangly guitars that offer the track an immediate timelessness and inherent joyfulness, highlighting Swift’s desire to distract and entertain listeners, even in turmoil. “Seven” sees Swift reminiscing about a friend from her early childhood in Pennsylvania whom she can’t fully recall but still has fond memories of. She highlights how she feels she was her truest self as a child and asks her former friend to remember her that way, also recalling her friend’s troubled childhood with her father and offering her to come live with her so they can play pirates, much in the way a child would. Swift hints towards her former friend’s possible queerness (“then you won’t have to cry / or hide in the closet”) and urges her former friend to run away with her to India, again choosing to escape from their problems by running away, as a child would. The production from Dessner is intimate yet resonant, allowing Swift to maintain the whimsical nature of a childhood friendship while hinting at the darker tones that come with adulthood and growing up. Positioned as the eighth track on the album and named after the eighth month of the year, “August” captures a summer fling between two young lovers, who go on to lose their virginities to each other. The narrator eventually comes to realize that despite her hopes that her love will continue their romance after the summer, her lover has another waiting for him when he returns to school. She relishes in the hope she felt for the relationship and daydreams about the way their romance unfolded over the season. Swift’s vocals are breezy and light, reflecting the usual weather of the summer season and carries a natural wistfulness in her voice as she ponders the romance, both grieving and yearning over the past relationship. The production Swift and Antonoff provide her is subtle and driven mostly by acoustic guitar, giving the song the feel of a more grandiose version of the gloomy pop-rock ballad everpresent in ’90s teen dramas. “This is Me Trying” sees Swift’s narrator taking responsibility for the distance between them and its intended recipient, painting themselves as a usual overachiever who fell behind due to their struggles with mental illness and alcoholism as a coping mechanism, even experiencing suicidal ideation as an escape. However, the narrator resolves to keep trying, despite not fully knowing the best way to reconcile with the song’s recipient. The lyrics here could be taken as Swift accepting responsibility for her past perceived transgressions and her approach to healing in the aftermath of her issues, as well as a straightforward tale of a lover attempting to reconcile with an ex after personal issues got in the way of their romance. Swift sings with the weariness of someone struggling with their issues to put their best foot forward and the tense strings convey the anxiousness and desperation Swift feels. “Illicit Affairs” is a mostly stripped-down outing that sees Swift musing about infidelity, spotlighting the measures her disloyal protagonist has to carry out to keep the affair between a man and herself a secret, such as running to explain away her flushing face. She ponders on how the relationship has ruined regular romances for the protagonist as she longs for the high of the secret bond. Swift likens the bond to that of a secret language or colors she can’t see with another person, and she sings with the bitterness of being in a relationship that isn’t going to end well for either party. “Invisible String” sees Swift revisiting her romance with Joe Alwyn and pondering upon how there was a connection between them she wasn’t aware of until they met. Swift peppers her lyrics with references to past works and to Alwyn and herself, such as Centennial Park in her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, and the color of his shift when he worked at Snogs’ Frozen Yogurt. She references past hit “Bad Blood” and a waitress recognizing her as an American singer, as well as the titular string pulling her to the dive bar mentioned in “Delicate”, which largely depicted Swift and Alwyn’s meeting. The production from Dessner is lowkey and allows Swift to wax poetic about her romance with Alwyn, as she suggests it was fate that led them to each other.
“Mad Woman” sees Swift fully stepping into the role of a scorned widow exacting vengeance on the town that spurned her, and feels like her immersing herself in the role of Rebekah Harkness of “The Last Great American Dynasty”. She uses this to point out the way women who don’t adhere to society’s standards for them are often demonized and how this victimization fuels their desire for revenge. It’s an easy role for Swift to adopt, having experienced her demonization at the hands of former feuds and Swift thrives in extrapolating from her past to build upon the song’s lore. Swift’s cold fury is palpable and buoyed by the ominous synths and the uneasy piano of the song’s production, as well as Swift’s witchy background harmonies. “Epiphany” draws upon the stories Swift heard of her grandfather in the military, attempting to make peace with the chaos of war and the tragedy of people dying around him. Swift relates this to the current pandemic and the fight medical professionals are waging against a virus as it presents challenges never before seen or taught to them in medical school. She compares between them the trauma of seeing someone die in front of your eyes and having to reconcile this with your state of mind to continue serving your purpose. The production from Dessner is ethereal and affecting, and Swift’s delivery is reverent and angelic as she pays homage to those laying their lives down in service of others. “Betty” opens with harmonica and casts Swift as a young man named James, who had a summer fling with another girl in the earlier track “August”. As James, Swift is apologetic about his past transgressions but doesn’t fully own up to his mistakes, attempting to explain away his unwillingness to dance with her on his fear of crowds and even suggesting Betty had a wandering eye. Swift perfectly captures the petulance and irresponsibility of James, who thinks a big romantic gesture at her party will erase his mistakes, even as he insults her friends. Swift mentioned that three tracks on the album serve as her Teenage Love Triangle songs from each party’s perspective and James’s mention of Betty’s cardigan casts Betty as the narrator of “Cardigan”. This track works as a sonic flashback to Swift’s work on Speak Now and Fearless, boasting the same adolescent voice as well as the more traditional country inflections of those albums. On the sparse “Peace”, Swift sings to Alwyn to warn him of the challenges that come with being her lover, assuring him that while she can fully love him and she wants to give herself completely to him, she can’t promise that their life will ever be normal because of who she is. It’s a dissection of the effects Swift’s high-profile superstardom could have on their relationship and the enemies she has as a result of her career, and a genuine profession of the love she has for Alwyn. The minimalistic production allows Swift’s sentiment to come across with sincerity and highlights her soulful vocal performance. On closing track “Hoax”, Swift weaves the tale of a toxic relationship where her lover has cheated on her, but she would rather be miserable with him than happy with someone else. Swift paints the relationship as having taken all the positivity out of her life and reawakening old wounds and insecurities. Swift imagines a devastatingly broken relationship and builds the framework with her past experiences and thoughts, making the song feel as confessional as her past work and ending the album on a melodramatic and characteristically solemn note.
Folklore is a major departure for Swift as she lands on a new sound that sees her bringing facets of her country and pop songwriting to a more alternative and folksier effort. Though this album is far less personal than Swift’s usual fare, this is Swift’s lyricism at its peak and her music feels resonant and relatable. The album displays a previously little-explored talent of Swift’s to mythologize and create stories about other people and imagined situations by finding connections between her stories and herself, making her new songs feel lived-in and true to life. On all fronts, this is Swift’s most experimental album to date and is wildly a success, as her new sound fits her as well as any of her previous albums did and allows her to explore new territory and expand on her oeuvre. This is Swift’s most mature album as well, as she approaches topics such as feminism, infidelity, and alcoholism with more complexity and nuance than she has in the past. Swift’s work here is more reminiscent of artists like Alanis Morissette or Ani DiFranco, but without sounding like either of those artists and never losing her trademark writing style or her ear for melodies. Whether Swift will return to pop or country in the future is entirely unknown, but this album is proof that no matter what she decides to do next, Swift remains one of the most essential and one of the greatest songwriters of our generation.