The second to last song on Taylor Swift’s quiet, exquisite album 'folklore' is called 'peace'. A once-vindictive Swift, once at the mercy of her come-and-go lovers, has finally found peace. Peace can be used to describe everything about folklore, from the sonic atmosphere it creates, to the creative period in which she’s written it, to the cocoon of misplaced longing and self-reflective mental housekeeping that quarantine forces you into.
That the fast-paced nature of our lives has finally fallen away in favor of something much more deliberate has birthed 'folklore', an album that favours self-actualisation – the long-awaited second chance that we give ourselves as we make peace with what is and allow something beautiful to come out of it. Quarantine has become a time for crafts, isolation, self-reflection, longing, and realisation. And it has become all of these things at once for Swift, whose rather delicate eighth album came together on a whim in the seething, never-ending throes of isolation.
A lucky addition to Swift’s catalogue – one borne only out of the fractious uncertainty of our current era – it is quite frankly a miracle that this album ever came to fruition. Had the world never turned upside down three months ago, had we still been living our high-speed, touch-and-go lives, Lover would still be the last album to grace her discography, the perfume-sweet stickiness of 'ME! (ft. Brendan Urie)' still lingering in the summer air.
But 'folklore', Taylor’s grandiose musical start to the roaring ‘20s (which have started, by all other accounts, terribly) has done much to make the impact of a tumultuous new decade a little softer. A serene, wintery album released smack in the middle of summer, folklore is 'Red' but gentler, reputation but more insightful, Speak Now but more lyrically complex. It reverberates with the energy of a former pop-star finally navigating production without grasping for a hit, and forces us to slow down and take stock of where we are now in love and life.
The devil is indeed in the details: folklore unabashedly champions cinematic grace in a time of turbulent unease. It prioritizes the feelings that make themselves known in times of quiet reflection, in the tranquil darkness of the night, in between the longing stares of clandestine “meetings in parking lots”.
While in the past, Swift’s works have tended to sucker-punch with euphemisms rather than with blunt, bold statements, there is a refreshing directness to some of the songs here. Where she was once shaky with metaphors and a victim of “fake-deep” lyrics, she seems to smooth out the kinks of her lyrical composition, turning her already masterful storytelling into an even more deft game of saying the most with the least words.
The gentle, unhurried pace of the songs as she tells her stories in rich, hidden metaphors shows us an unanticipated side of her, one that now appreciates the nuances of life and accepts that not everything is cut-and-dry. From twisted waltzes to tried-and-true ‘80s-inspired pop, her musical repertoire has expanded to unexpected directions, and she, too, has grown – to be more blunt, more unapologetic, and at the same time, more self-reflective.
The sonic beauty on folklore really comes on 'Exile'. Another Jack Antonoff-produced track, Swift’s scintillating duet with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) whisks us right back to the beautiful harmonies on her 2012 duet with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody on 'Red'. Taken line by line, the conversational lyrics of Swift and Bon Iver’s impassioned duet – a beautiful, wintry, tortured monster of a song – seems to be told from the perspectives of two lovers walking away from a whirlwind relationship right before they get roped into something inescapable.
That alone is new ground for her – where she once used to plunge wholeheartedly into things she knew would hurt her, the resulting lyrics a necessary catharsis as she searched for the pieces of herself lost at sea, she now is careful, calculated, guarded with her heart. Deep down, the song is more of Swift’s closing the chapter on the last decade, looking back at her past relationships with the benefit of hindsight and maturity, vowing not to make the same mistakes again. The powerful bridge brings us what is an obvious nod to 'If This A Was A Movie': she has indeed seen this film before in her past six albums. And never once did she like the ending.
It’s these new perspectives that give this record a new dimension unlike any of her others. Further down the tracklist is 'illicit affairs', a brilliant follow-up to 'this is me trying', that manages to turn a tale of infidelity – one that 2006 Taylor would’ve explicitly condemned – into a tale of impassioned, embittered, jagged love. Similarly 'betty', whose harmonicas bring you to near tears as Swift paints a picture of a sapphic love triangle through the lens of naive adolescence, describes a complicated tale of cheating and emotional entanglement that ends in heartbreak and shattered dreams. Listening to the lyrics on “august” feels almost vouyeristic, as we lean in to hear all the stories that “innocent-era” Swift would’ve kept secret.
Immediately noticeable is that there are no quintessentially “pop” songs on this album. There’s enough material for you to float around your room longingly in white garb, to sit and think about relationships past, to look at life in the rearview, wondering what things would be like had things been done differently, but nothing to dance around and pretend like everything is and will be alright.
Arguably, we don’t need this. It will come, Swift urges, once we’ve made peace with the battle within ourselves. Simply put, folklore is a speed bump. It is a small sliver of familiarity and nostalgia that broadcasts openness without resentment, mockery or one-sided representations, and finds Swift finally committing to shedding the brash, poppy sound in favor of the soft, tonal glow of reverb and contemplation.
But fans of '1989', 'Reputation', and 'The Archer' on Lover, will be thrilled to hear that the synthy, sugarcoated drama and breathy vocals of yore ('Wildest Dreams', 'Getaway Car', 'Dress') have once again returned to Taylor Swift’s tracklist in earnest, albeit buried under a layer of bright, folksy guitars and ringing pianos. folklore indeed lives up to its title by being completely devoid of any beats faster than that of “invisible string”, and presents Swift almost like a children’s storybook: melodically fresh-faced, lyrically bare.
Swift’s penchant for blending the last remnants of her country roots with a more modern edge shines through the most on synth powerhouses 'this is me trying' and 'mirrorball', the ethereal children of the album. 'my tears ricochet' is a similarly gentle track with hints of synth pop that are a little more on the subtle side, and according to Swift is about “an embittered tormentor showing up at the funeral of his fallen object of affection”. And 'hoax', almost entirely piano, takes the album out with a whisper, Swift’s voice dovetailing over soft piano notes that sound almost like her tip-toeing away as she plays those closing notes, wisping away forever.
And 'cardigan[', which begs for a seat at its own table, is a tranquil love song of hope. Part of “the collection of three songs [she] refers to as The Teenage Love Triangle,” that “explore a love triangle from all three people’s perspectives at different times in their lives,” cardigan was “inspired by the feeling of isolation and how it is freeing and terrifying and causes you to reminisce.”
The visuals, a dark and stormy cross between 'Out Of The Woods' and 'Safe And Sound', sees Swift grasping onto her piano, about to be swept away by a storm surge in the middle of the sea. But the video, instead, has a happy ending: Swift escapes troubled waters by climbing into the magical realm of her piano, which opens to a quiet room lit only by candlelight. She puts on her weathered cardigan, and sits delicately at her piano.
For an isolated moment, she finds peace.
Words: Valerie Magan
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