In her 2019 Netflix documentary, Taylor Swift pondered many things about being a woman in music. One of those things was the need for female artists to constantly reinvent themselves to keep their audience interested. After her 2019 record, Lover, came and went with the usual business that a fan-base as large as her always warrants – huge album sales, numerous twitter trends – there seemed to be an odd unspoken question: where does she go from here? Now, less than a year later, we have our answer. With her eighth studio album, folklore, Swift evolves beyond the need to reinvent and her desire to be the biggest star on the planet, finding the record’s sound in her heart rather than in her head.
folklore marks numerous firsts for Swift; her first surprise release, her first album that could by any realm of the imagination be considered “Alternative”, and her first work with some new collaborators. The most prominent of those collaborators is Aaron Dessner of The National, who notches production and song-writing credits on the majority of the record. Along with Swift and her usual partner-in-crime Jack Antonoff, Dessner crafts stunningly atmospheric instrumentals, capturing each song’s individuality, while also perfectly crafting them to fit together.
Dessner’s overseeing of much of records’ production seemingly gives Swift freedom, allowing her to focus on what made her famous in the first place; her lyrics. Her song-writing has never been stronger, dialing up the vulnerability and emotion that built the empire that she is today, but evolving far beyond her usually perfectly crafted structures into looser, more contemplating lyricism. ‘mirrorball’ is a hazy, meandering song cut straight from the prom scene of any coming-of-age movie and an emotional sister-track to Lorde’s ‘Liability’ (Antonoff handled the production on both). ‘invisible string’ is a beautiful little bluesy number that ponders the idea of true love: “isn’t it just so pretty to think / all along there was some / invisible string / tying you to me?”.
The only entirely self-written track here is ‘my tears ricochet’, a heart-breaking piano ballad that feels less like a gut-wrench and more like a hammer to the back of the head. “And you can aim for my heart, go for blood”, Swift sings with vengeance, “But you would still miss me in your bones”.
As the album’s title would suggest, it’s not all Swift’s stories. Many of the songs tell the stories of other people, not typical of the hyper-personal Swift, but also not completely unfamiliar. On ‘the last great american dynasty’, Swift tells the story of Rebecca Harkness, a woman married to the heir of the Standard Oil fortune and who owned Swift’s Rhode Island home before the star bought it. Opening track, ‘the 1’, lays bare the doubts of one of Swift’s friend’s after the end of a relationship (“If one thing had been different/Would everything be different?”), while ‘seven’ tells the story of how a child worries for her friend whose “father is always mad”.
Swift also crafts a self-proclaimed “teenage love-triangle”, writing from each person’s perspective. The album’s lead single, ‘cardigan’, is narrated by a girl, Betty, who finds out the boy she has been seeing cheated on her, while ‘august’, a warm acoustic track, shows the perspective of the girl with who the boy cheats with. The triangle concludes in the record’s most country track ‘betty’, where the boy asks for forgiveness. ‘betty’ is full of wide-eyed hope, all dressed up in acoustic guitars, harmonica solos and a final chorus key change that is just so Swiftian, you can’t help but smile. However, it is also laden with the maturity she has acquired since her early years as a teenage prodigy. “Would you have me? Would you want me? / Would you tell me to go fuck myself?”, James asks. Yes, she really says “fuck”.
But, its not the curse words that makes folklore so mature, although they are plentiful by Swift’s standards. It is more so the way in which she writes here; in a manner so different to her prior work, but so distinctly herself at the same time. folklore feels less like a reinvention for Swift and more like a culmination of every version of her we have seen so far, the brilliance of the record being in the way so many of the song’s feel like versions of songs we know and love; ‘betty’, with its big country hook, feels like an expansion of Taylor Swift’s ‘Mary’s Song (Oh My My My)’. The Bon Iver feature, ‘exile’, an extension of the heartbreak of RED’s ‘The Last Time’ (featuring Gary Lightbody). Echoes of reputation tracks ‘I Did Something Bad’ and ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ fester under the surface of ‘mad woman’ and ‘my tears ricochet’. It’s like every version of Swift, from the sixteen-year-old girl who wanted to play a headline show to the twenty-something woman who watched as her reputation was torn apart, came together to make an album. The Swift of folklore isn’t trying to reinvent herself. Instead, she’s looking back at everything she’s ever felt- joy, sadness, success, failure, love, anger- and looking at it with newfound clarity. folklore is a lot of things for Swift – her first surprise release, her first record of the new decade. It is also her best album to date. But, more importantly, it’s the first one where she sounds completely sure of herself.