Taylor Swift, for once, has thrown a curveball. Announced just 24 hours before its release, completely disregarding the lengthy release campaigns of her seven previous albums, folklore is a strange little gem in Taylor's long and illustrious career. Created remotely with Aaron Dessner and longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff, folklore sees Swift diving headfirst into folk pop and soft rock. Although an unexpected turn from a global superstar who perfected her craft in synth pop, it's not completely without precedent.
Folklore is Taylor's take on headphone candy, music you can bury yourself into and get lost in. It's fitting for the visual rhetoric of the album campaign: cottagecore, "somber wood land fairies," white cardigans, sepia-tones with campfire sparks, black–and–white forest shots, and hair done up in little buns. These aesthetics make for an album rooted in isolation and fantasy. As Swift said in a press release, this album was born from "imagery," like "stars drawn around scars," apologetic teens, and a mirrored disco ball. These images are rooted in escapism and stories that are "passed down like folk songs."
It's not the first time Swift has written fiction, yet the record still marks a departure from the largely autobiographical nature of her discography. It's one of the sharpest shifts in tone she has made in her career: the effervescent, glittery sparkles of her blockbuster 2019 effort Lover, which saw Swift nail down how to exist in the pubic eye, are traded in for introspective, muted tones. Only the shift from 2012's Red to 2014's 1989 is comparable.
On folklore, Swift interrogates her characters' deepest, most devastating desires with music set to the quiet yet insistent beats of the human heart. It's the most somber record she has released to date, and in that quiet, Swift's songwriting shines through like it never has before, letting little details speak big truths.
Perhaps the strongest trio of songs on the album are the so–called "Teenage Love Triangle": lead single "cardigan," "august," and "betty," each of which tell the same story from a different perspective. In Swift's already highly analyzed and self–referential discography, these three songs have become some of the most discussed. Notably, "betty," which is told from the perspective of a teenage boy named James, has been a particular point of interest and controversy as some have tried to read a queer subtext into it. The song uses female pronouns in addressing both its titular character and Inez, the character to whom "august" is devoted to. All three lean into Taylor's strength to write from the teenage viewpoint, yet, like the rest of folklore, they show a marked maturity and self–possession that's new for the pop star.
Other highlights include the dreamy "mirrorball," which slides along like a fog machine on an LED–lit living room floor. Also worthy of note is the one–two gut punch of "this is me trying," and "illicit affairs," arguably two of the most devastating songs in Swift's discography. The songs call to mind the legendary fan favorite "All Too Well" from 2012's Red. The only other song closest in tone to these two tearjerkers is the one collaboration on the album, "exile," which features the folk icon Bon Iver, who has worked with Dessner on their side project Big Red Machine. "exile" drags, at first, at an awkward, almost unpleasant pace before breaking into something like catharsis. As the song comes to a close, one feels like a weight has finally been lifted off their shoulders. The heaviness is appropriate for the content of the song, which details a fraught relationship coming to its drastic, inevitable end.
Yet, there are pockets of sunshine, even among all the darkness which clouds much of the record. Opener "the 1," which breezes by like an afternoon bike ride, sees Swift confidently reflecting on a failed relationship. "the last great american dynasty," inspired by the eccentric socialite Rebekah Harkness, who once owned Swift's Rhode Island mansion, deftly weaves personal and political history into a timelessly feminist ode to the woman who "had a marvelous time ruining everything." Eight tracks later, "mad woman" speaks to a similarly feminist tone. "invisible string" and "peace" are perhaps sonically the lightest on the record. Both tracks are love songs: the former feels like a breath of fresh air, or a rainbow appearing after a storm; the latter holds its breath, waiting for a reply that never comes. Closer "hoax," which would've benefited from a replacement with "peace" as a the final track, reads, fittingly, like a storybook.
On folklore, Swift stakes her claim as a songwriter in a similar vein as Joni Mitchell, stuffing her songs full of the minute ephemera of isolation, covering topics she hasn't touched on before. These are stories, born in the solitude of the pandemic, that Swift hopes be "passed down like folk songs" for generations, long after a vaccine is created and quarantine has ended.