“You’d hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine”, Taylor Swift smirks on “We Are Never Getting Back Together”. She stormed into the forefront of pop music with 2012’s Red. Since, Swift has released 3 traditional “pop” albums. On July 24th, she released her first alternative album, Folklore. We knew a post-pop Taylor Swift album would come eventually, but we definitely weren’t expecting it.
The album was a surprise release with no radio singles, released less than a year after 2019’s Lover. Just a few days after its release, Swift’s 8th album achieved the most day-one streams of an album on Spotify (female). It was streamed an impressive 80.6 million times.
Folklore is Taylor Swift’s riskiest release to date. The album features folk-pop reminiscent of her eponymous country debut Taylor Swift. It also includes indie-rock production from The National’s Aaron Dessner. The result is reminiscent of her 2011 The Hunger Games soundtrack contribution “Safe & Sound” with The Civil Wars. It’s hard to say the risks don’t pay off.
Swift is the decade’s most prominent artist to move from country music’s girl-next-door to an international pop phenomena. But this classic “country to pop” recipe has been inverted in the past few years. For example, see Miley Cyrus’ return-to-roots (but ultimately boring) Younger Now or Kesha’s cowgirl boot-thumping (but inconsistently successful) Rainbow. Even Justin Timberlake pranced around in a fringe jacket for Man of The Woods. So it’s not surprising Swift is stripping back her stadium-ready sound for something more understated.
While I tip my cowboy hat to these artists, the results were mostly disappointing. These performers don’t lack country music credentials either; both Cyrus and Kesha have penned hits in Nashville. But these releases were marketed as forming naturally, with the most personal songwriting. Not without success (Kesha’s victorious “Praying” outshines the rest of the album), these records were received as unbelievably orchestrated. “It’s remarkable how few ideas are contained within this hour-plus Blue Ridge Mountains mood board of an album” Pitchfork said of Timberlake’s at times cringey country-baiting release.
But Folklore was written entirely during COVID-19 quarantine, strengthening claims that the project came together organically. Swift said she wrote the album with Aaron Dessner and frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff without even notifying her record label. And rather than promoting the record as intensely personal, the album looks outward. It draws inspiration from well-known archetypes and fireside stories, allowing Swift to weave together her own set of folklore. For someone like Taylor Swift, who plans her extensive record releases years in advance, the project sells as believably effortless.
Other parts of the album’s release are widely contrived. Folklore borrows imagery from “Exile” collaborator Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago. That album was created after Justin Vernon spent months isolated in a cabin during 2006-2007. After strong encouragement from Vernon’s friends, he self-released the album, entitling him to a record deal and critical acclaim.
For Folklore, Swift opted for a black-and-white forest photoshoot and a “Cardigan” music video of her playing piano in a candlelit cottage. You can find pictures on Instagram of her famous friends in their homemade-looking crunchy cardigans. The actual album has little to do with nature, albeit “Seven” which asks us to “Please picture me in the trees”. But if Swift has learned anything from her lengthy career, it’s that her music consistently outshines her sometimes questionable sales tactics (like trying to copyright the year 1989).
The album opens with the string-plucking “The 1” and shifts into the fluttering piano of “Cardigan”. These are undeniably well-written Taylor Swift tracks. With bare but fascinating production, she shrugs “In my defense, I have none/For never leaving well enough alone/But it would’ve been fun/If you would’ve been the one”. These are mature lines from someone previously known to write about pining after unrequited love or finger-pointing her exes.
“The Last Great American Dynasty” is the most upbeat song, with some of Swift’s most poignant Folklore lyricism. She tells the tale of Rebekah Harkness, the former owner of Swift’s Rhode Island home, Holiday House. The story is enthralling, with subtle comments on wealth and social class. It’s Taylor’s most effective tune characterizing an external subject. Even if it’s about Taylor Swift owning multiple mansions.
“Exile” with Bon Iver is an album highlight, a haunting duet comparing fading love to uprooting home. It’s a straightforward Bon Iver cut, but Swift and Vernon’s vocal delivery is enough to make you shed a tear. “Mirrorball” is a personal favorite. Just to prove Jack Antonoff and Taylor Swift’s can make moody 80’s prom music.
“Invisible String” brings out the bubbly banjo-serenading version of Swift from her teenage years. It’s a great victory lap, showing that Taylor hasn’t lost her touch over the years. But the later album highlight is “Betty”, the most country-leaning song on Folklore. Over acoustic guitar and harmonica, Taylor embodies a teenage boy (I mean IF James is a girl) apologizing for cheating on Betty. The song’s teenage spectacle could have been an eye roll, but makes you swoon with nostalgia at lines like “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything/But I know I miss you”.
Some of the best songwriting on Folklore is simply the application of common fables and mythology. Is Taylor Swift endlessly moaning about her long-past feud with Kanye West and the media on “Mad Woman?” Or is she acknowledging that these stories aren’t unique to her at all? On Folklore, Swift learns to profit from blurring these lines. Taylor Swift has officially begun her post-pop career. Folklore is proof she is just getting started.