Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” Is A Personal, Artistic Triumph

Taylor Swift released her eighth studio album "Folklore" on July 24, 2020.

Ursula Muñoz Schaefer/Opinion Director

It’s safe to say that nobody was expecting Taylor Swift to announce a surprise album on July 23, at 8:00 A.M.—less than 24 hours before it dropped. Up until now, the country-pop-crossover act had been one to announce new music months in advance, entertaining fans with clues and easter eggs during the lengthy roll-out process to generate anticipation.

According to her social media posts, Swift wanted to find a “perfect” moment to release the new album, titled “Folklore.” “Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed,” Swift wrote. 

And so, to make life just a little easier, Swift released her eighth studio album on midnight, first lyrics being, “I’m doing good, I’m on that new sh*t.” Some would argue that the folksy approach is a return to her country roots. But the record does, in fact feel like “new sh*t,” not just because it sees Swift once again experimenting with new sounds, but because it sees her at her peak.

Those wary of Swift’s mainstream success may find the opening verse of “Cardigan”—“Folklore”’s lead single and its second track after “The 1”—a bit grating. “Vintage tee, brand new phone, high heels on cobblestones,” she broods, clearly pushing forth the West Elm aesthetic of her new era and advertising merchandise that can be found on her online store

“Cardigan” is the only song you could perhaps argue the glaring commercial quality of, but before it begins to feel disingenuous, Swift’s syrupy voice changes key and dives into a diaphanous-sounding chorus introducing romantic imagery reminiscent of that nostalgic Americana quality that’s become a staple of many of her most intimate songs. 

In 2008’s “Fearless,” it was “there’s something about the way the street looks when it’s just rained.” In 2019’s “Cruel Summer,” it was “hang your head low in the glow of the vending machine.” Now it’s, “but I knew you, dancing in your Levi’s drunk under the streetlight.”

Swift’s exceptional skill at quality songwriting and descriptive imagery is what truly makes her stand out as an artist even 14 years and numerous genre shifts after her eponymous debut. Still, anyone who’s been listening since her days of ringlet curls and sparkly guitars will tell you that it’s been a while since she really showed that talent off. 

2014’s critically adored “1989” may be one of last decade’s definitive pop records, but the lyrics mostly pale in comparison to her preceding work. 2017’s “Reputation,” felt over-produced and left little room for sincerity. Last year’s “Lover” came close to bridging that gap between lyricism and pop perfection, but was overlong and had some notable duds. Not since 2012’s “Red” has an album of hers felt so uniquely hers, despite significant success in the pop arena.

So when I say “Folklore” may just be Swift’s best yet, it’s not the recency bias talking. At 30, the singer-songwriter’s wealth of personal and professional experience shines through, resulting in storytelling that’s richer and far more nuanced than anything she’s previously done. Add in co-writers and producers Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dessner, and you’ve got a polished alternative folk album with dream-pop elements.

“Folklore”’s only self-written song, “My Tears Ricochet” echoes 2010’s “Dear John,” but feels less like the scribbled diary entries of a passionate teen and more like a sobering recollection of past events. 

Meanwhile, “The Last Great American Dynasty” (co-written with Dessner)—about the maverick wife of an oil tycoon who previously owned her Rhode Island mansion—is if “Starlight” (2012), grew up, divorced and spent the rest of its life running in the sand, wearing linen dresses. The parallels between her story and that of the subject make it more empowering and self-aware than any of her previous endeavors that also venture into feminist territory. 

Exile,” featuring the indie folk band Bon Iver, sounds a lot like 2012’s “The Last Time,” which featured Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody—but it also improves upon the formula, the piano and violins giving it an almost ethereal quality as Swift and frontman Justin Vernon’s vocals meld together flawlessly. Other standouts include the ambient, shoegazy “Epiphany,” and the bittersweet, chamber-pop ballad “Mirrorball,” which feels on-brand with all of Swift and Antonoff’s previous collaborative efforts.

There’s also a high school love triangle told from three different perspectives through “Betty,” the aforementioned “Cardigan” and “August”—the latter feeling angstier than anything from 2008’s “Fearless.” That’s followed by “This Is Me Trying” and “Illicit Affairs,” which feel like the shocking lows of a depressive episode, before Swift takes some St. John’s Wort and bounces back with “Invisible String,” a cute indie-folk ballad about her relationship with current beau, Joe Alwyn.

Scattered throughout the rest of “Folklore” are soft, earthy tunes about love and longing complete with fingerstyle guitar playing, sonorous pianos and bow instruments. 

“My gut is telling me that if you make something you love,” Swift posted, “you should just put it out into the world.”

Written, recorded, engineered and mixed during the pandemic, “Folklore” is a labor of love, and the best from an artist who’s been around for so long but proves yet again that she’s nowhere near done.

Catch me dancing to “Mirrorball,” “standing on my tallest tiptoes, spinning in my highest heels, love.”

Rating: 10/10

1 Comment on "Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” Is A Personal, Artistic Triumph"

  1. There’s certainly a lot to know about this subject.

    I love all the points you have made.

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