Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’ Is A Gorgeous Mood
If you’re a Taylor Swift fan online — the kind that hangs out on Tumblr or peruses her Spotify playlists — you know “All Too Well,” a non-single from 2012’s Red, is held in the highest esteem. It’s become shorthand for signaling you get her. Sure, “Shake It Off” and “Look What You Made Me Do” are catchy and fun and bigger commercial hits, but it’s “All Too Well” that clues people in on all the reasons that actually, you love Taylor just a little bit more. The detailed stories that invoke memories you didn’t even fully know you had, imagery-rich snapshots that can describe a whole life in three-and-a-half minutes.
The stories pile up on Swift’s latest, the aptly named folklore, one on top of the other — cheating spouses and doomed teenage love triangles and an ex-lover’s funeral — springing from her rich imagination, she notes, as fully formed characters. As an artist whose work, for better and worse, is often taken deeply literally (“she had a drink there, she’s got bad blood with him”), I have to imagine the relief she must enjoy with a project like this: Explicitly fictional to some degree, playing with characters and persona. Her imagination gets to be the star.
And what an imagination it is. She compares herself to a mirrorball: “I can change everything about me to fit in”; she’s a widow scorned: “No one likes a mad woman/you made her like that,” and a teenage boy full of regret: “In the garden would you trust me if I told you it was just a summer thing? I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything but I know I miss you.”
On one of the album’s best tracks, the Fearless-esque country twang-rich “Invisible String,” Swift’s deep romanticism is on display, pondering fate and feeling bubbly and hopeful. But while earlier versions may have also included a barb, the sharp thorn of the rose has dulled: “Time, mystical time cutting me open, then healing me fine…Time, wondrous time gave me the blues and then purple-pink skies and it’s cool.” It’s a sigh of relief.
With some anger gone, it’s also interesting to witness Swift explore topics at 30 that she also tackled at 16, now colored with even more shades of gray. She’s gone from “You should have said no / you should have gone home” about infidelity to pondering how “You showed me colors you know I can’t see with anyone else…you know damn well for you, I would ruin myself.” Her pen is still pointed, but she’s looking inward more than ever, still wrestling with demons she’s confessed to before: how she may never bring a lover peace, the gilded cage of her fame, the fear of feeling too big and losing it all.
Folk and indie rock and country thrills combine for a surprising new sound for Swift, one that honors her past but moves her oeuvre forward in special ways.
Particularly during a time when everyone’s feelings are scary and big, folklore is special in how it draws those uncertain moments out. While only occasionally explicitly about These Times — “Epiphany” seems to reference front-line doctors in the midst of hell — many of her lyrical characters are praying for a peace that may or may not come, longing for something earlier or easier. “There goes the last great American dynasty” she croons at one point. “Please picture me in the trees I hit my peak at seven feet in the swing over the creek” she remembers at another.
Swift, of course, has been nostalgic for an earlier time since she was a precocious 15 year old. Here, that ever-present want is particularly wistful, her voice reverbing with echo, pared-back production allowing each sigh to have its space to breathe. If the overproduction of some of Lover occasionally buried the lyrics (I’m thinking about “Me!”), the 16 tracks of folklore, co-produced/co-written primarily by the National’s Aaron Dessner but with Swift mainstay Jack Antonoff also in the mix, each breathy confession gets the reverence it deserves. The big ‘80s synth of 1989 this is not.
These folk and indie rock and country thrills combine for a surprising new sound for Swift, one that honors her past but moves her oeuvre forward in special ways. Time will tell if it’s a contemplative one-off born of the freedom of isolation, or the first steps in a new way forward for her impressive career. Either way, it’s exciting to know one of the the biggest stars can still stun, and deliver a thoughtful, revelatory, quiet quarantine zig for a world zagging.