The tales of Taylor Swift: whims, dreams, & musings. ‘folkore’ – album review
If there’s one artist who needs no introduction, it’s Taylor Swift. Lockdown has inspired a lot of unexpected releases so far, but perhaps the biggest surprise comes from Miss Americana herself. In direct contrast to the exuberant vengeful pop beats and outwardly brighter aesthetic of her last album ‘Lover’, ‘folklore’ makes for much tamer listening, circling back to Swift’s innate ability to weave a damn good story and monopolise the theme of lost innocence. Written from the perspective of both real and imagined experiences, the singer wrote and recorded the album in its entirety during isolation, and describes it as an “album of songs I’ve poured all of my whims, dreams, fears, and musings into.”
That being said, if not for the immensely strong youth-defining repertoire of music that follows Taylor Swift to date, I’m not sure if the record’s opening track, ‘the 1’, would have been enough of an incentive alone to have enticed me to listen to the whole album. A fairly slow burner, my only real takeout from this one is that America’s sweetheart openly cusses in her music now?! Nice.
‘cardigan’ sets a better tone for the record and perfectly reinforces Taylor’s stronghold for analogical love songs as she romanticises the notion of being someone’s favourite old cardigan. I still can’t decide whether I love or hate this single, but one thing’s for certain, and it’s that the music video has given me a new found appreciation of the beauty of it. Riddled with rich forestry imagery, it adds an extra layer of depth to the lyricism as we see her clinging to a piano whilst lost at sea. The message is clear: music is her lifeline. But as far as lyrical analysis goes, I’d need an entire dissertation + research sabbatical to do the album justice.
Matters of the heart put aside for a moment, what follows in ‘the last great american dynasty’ is the story of Rebekah Harkness, the prior proprietor of Swift’s holiday home mansion, but more infamously a mid-century heiress and socialite with a love of the finer things in life. The track recounts how Harkness “flew in all her Bitch Pack friends from the city, filled the pool with champagne and swam with the big names” – an ode to the media’s vilification of the socialite and her “bitch squad”, as they were commonly referred to. Despite being a philanthropic purveyor of the arts, the press only focused on depicting one angle and, interestingly, Swift later shifts into the first person perspective in the song to perhaps highlight the similarity between her own story and Harkness’.
But despite Swift’s strong storytelling capabilities, the first few songs on the album aren’t exactly page-turners. However, from here-on-out it’s nail-biting galore. If the 16-track album was just ‘exile’ on a loop for its entire 1+ hour duration, I’m not sure even that would be enough. As the ivory keys cry out in heartache, Bon Iver’s deep vocals are hypnotic, juxtaposing the angelic wistfulness of Swift’s melancholy. For a song about a break-up, there is no anger, just resignation as we listen in on what feels like an all-too-intimate dialogue between a couple. Condolences to anyone going through a breakup who stumbled upon this song and now undoubtedly feels all the more worse for it. After this, I feel like I’m going through it with you.
If I ever get lost in the woods and the native woodland creatures don’t greet me with the kind of harmonies that open ‘my tears ricochet’, then what’s the point of it all? A celestial ballad, if Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ could talk, this would be its anthem. The song is pretty, whimsical, and just…so pretty. With remnants of her ‘Speak Now’ album era, the lyrical sentiment is intensified once the fleeting drums kick in and Taylor’s voice breaks as the track reaches its peak; you can hear her heart on her sleeve, the mourn in her tears. In that moment, it’s as though she’s pleading to you, the listener, and you alone.
‘mirrorball’ is the most indie-sounding track on the record with, dare I say, slight emo undertones that evoke a sort of final-scene-in-a-tearjerker-movie moment; the prom scene, the break-up scene, the death scene – it’s an all-encompassing frontrunner for the title track of such films. “I’m a mirrorball, I can change everything about me to fit in” – Taylor is a performer, after all, and the imagery alludes to her need to pander to the audience to keep them entertained and constantly reinvent herself in the eye of the scrutiny.
Whilst ‘mirrorball’ is for the tearjerkers, ‘seven’ would be well-placed in a Studio Ghibli movie and coming from Sufjan Stevens’ mouth. Playful, fanciful, soft, but with a sad nostalgia tinge, the 7th track on the album is carried by a twinkling melody that leads to a Lana Del Rey-esque spoken chorus. There’s a child-like naivety to the lyrics as Taylor depicts the innocence of childhood friendships with drawn out requests of “please picture me in the trees, I hit my peak at seven.” If the rest of the album is intended for roaming around the forest as the album artwork would suggest, then ‘seven’ is the song to play on the remote drive down the long winding road to get there.
‘august’ is one of the very slightly more upbeat tracks, whilst still remaining true to the melancholic nature of the album. Stringing us along on a flurry and whir of instrumentals, the song is quite literally a breath of fresh air, as though you’re gliding through a meadow on a mid-summer’s day. It’s soothing, although the lyrics say otherwise, narrated from the perspective of a girl who shared a moment of time (we all know what that means…) with a boy who was never actually hers. The airiness continues into ‘this is me trying’ with its hauntingly exasperated vocals. The song is over three minutes long, but it doesn’t feel it; she gets straight to the point and hammers it home. She said she’s trying! What more do you want from her?! The track is simple, with no surprises outside of the formula, but it works.
Although most controversial in its theme, ‘illicit affairs’ feels sonically unremarkable, lost amidst the captivation of its predecessors. I will say, however, that only with the Taylor Swift effect could the the most mundane and decrepit details of an affair become charming and alight with poetic romanticism. Picking the momentum back up, ‘invisible string’ features finger-picked guitar notes that flow into one another like a stream, and a playful stomping drum beat as the singer explores the theme of fate and the invisible bond that ties her to her lover. In an album of folktales and fairytales, this is the kind of story that merits being told by the campfire as the fireflies dance around in the dark.
‘mad woman’ is grounding in stark comparison, with a faster pace that adds an air of sinisterness. “No-one likes a mad woman, you made her like that” – superficially guised as detailing the vengeful spirit of an outcast widow, Taylor overtly calls out the plight of women and the labels they brandish at the hands of a patriarchal society, where standing up for oneself makes her “crazy”. The singer is famously no stranger to this level of denigration herself (*cough* Kanye).
Cinematic in nature, ‘epiphany’ is grandeur redefined. A combination of orchestral cacophonies and ethereal choir-like vocals, the lyrics pay homage to both the sacrifice of Taylor’s grandfather in World War II, and healthcare workers at the forefront of the battle with COVID-19. “Something med school did not cover, someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, holds your hand through plastic now” – the song is a harrowing yet beautiful tribute.
From the first blow of the harmonica, ‘betty’ had me hooked. Swift unearths her country twang in all its glory, and I’m suddenly taken back to a youth that wasn’t even my life lived. The track is the third instalment of the trio of songs Taylor refers to as the ‘The Teenage Love Triangle’: whilst ‘cardigan’ is from the perspective of a girl named Betty and her infatuation with the boy she loves, ‘august’ shares the story from the point of view of the other girl – the one Betty’s boy cheated on her with, and finally ‘betty’ is the boy’s apology back to her for his wrongdoings. This is superseded by ‘peace’, where a guitar sings over a constant pulsing beat. Nothing new emerges within the instrumentals as the song rings out, but that almost makes you cling onto every word sung more so. It’s meditative, but for a song so peaceful, the lyrics detail that her life is not quite so much: “would it be enough if I could never give you peace?” The title of the track is deceptive as Swift alerts her lover to the fact that she can give him anything but. There’s something cathartic in the vulnerability of it all; all her cards are on the table, and there’s nothing left to hide behind.
A gentle close to a gentle album, ‘hoax’ is faint and downcast, but doesn’t seem to add more to the album than has already been said, making it slightly lacklustre as the final track. If there’s one thing ‘folkore’ has reinforced once more, however, it’s Taylor Swift’s strength as a songwriter and storyteller. At a time of such uncertainty, it’s the type of escapism we’re all fantasising about, but only Taylor Swift can seem to articulate.
For an album dropped in the midst of the summer, ‘folklore’ feels like being curled up in front of a log fire in a remote woodland cabin on a cold crispy Autumnal day. It’s the first sip of hot cocoa brimming with one too many marshmallows, and the old keepsake cardigan that hugs you so well. It may not be my go-to for every occasion, but it has a certain warmth to it that you don’t find all too often.
Favourite song: exile
Favourite lyric: I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere, fell behind all my classmates and I ended up here
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