Both those in tune with the music industry — some, perhaps, preparing for the 10-year anniversary of One Direction — and those removed from the latest radio hits due to quarantine were equally surprised by Taylor Swift’s eighth studio album announcement on the morning of July 23.
The country-singer-turned-pop-star posted on all of her social media accounts about the release of “folklore,” along with the music video for the song “cardigan.” A quick look at the album title, the track listing and the photos accompanying the release revealed yet another musical change for the artist — not quite a return to country, but certainly nothing in the realm of the production-laden and almost-saccharine “Shake It Off” and “ME!” Listeners have been both conflicted and supportive of Swift’s journey as an artist, but “folklore” proves to be her most ambitious and successful genre transition yet. In “folklore” Swift explores the atmospheric and stripped-down sound of indie folk with the help of Aaron Dessner from The Nationals, genre powerhouse Bon Iver and longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff.
The album’s sound has been brewing within Swift’s discography for the past few years, hinted at with hidden gems and standouts like “Long Live,” “Daylight” and “The Lucky One.” The shift presents itself on a macro-level with the distinctive “1989,” “reputation” and “Lover” that have now culminated in her even further removed-from-the-ordinary eighth outing.
However, even within her previous albums and their cohesiveness, Swift manages to incorporate an array of songs from more upbeat, radio-friendly hits to haunting ballads rife with messages and Easter eggs for her fans and critics alike. This is apparent in the duality of the hopeful “invisible string” and slow ballad of “epiphany.” Just like the title suggests, “folklore” requires a bit more digging and inspection, a walk through the forest of stories that Swift constructs in 16 tracks. That’s not to say her previous style explorations were unsuccessful, however, the latest album presents Swift at her most authentic, polishing off her evolving sound that has allowed her to express the changing phases of her life.
Even further removed from the constraining pressures of recording company politics, celebrity gossip and society at large during the pandemic, “folklore” is truly a quarantine record. It’s a themed album at its heart as Swift writes and sings from the point of view of various narrators and stories, weaving together the trio of “cardigan,” “Betty” and “august” and even singing from beyond the grave in “my tears ricochet.” Even with a close examination of the lyrics, such as with the mention of a cardigan in “Betty” and references to the previous owner of her Watch Hill residence in “the last great american dynasty,” the storytelling leaves much to the imagination in typical Swift songwriting fashion. She’s done it before, like with “Starlight” from “Speak Now” based on her grandparents, but now on a much grander scale and skilled hand. The curious, vague song titles like “hoax” and “mirrorball” pay homage to the folksy quality of the titular lore she seeks to create with stripped-down acoustics and instrumentals.
Although themed albums become more cohesive through their consistent tone, less experienced artists are sometimes unable to make songs within themed albums distinctive enough. However, from one song to another, the songs of “folklore” certainly have enough unique variation to stand out on their own in addition to seamlessly blending into one another, akin to the style of Phoebe Bridgers. From the echoing elements of “this is me trying” — probably thanks to Antonoff’s co-writing credit — to the haunting yearning of “exile” with Bon Iver (her most masterful duet, in my opinion), Swift showcases range while staying within a mature and experienced setting.
“Folklore” takes the best parts of her career like the lively youthfulness of “Fearless,” the melancholy of “Red,” the whimsy of “Speak Now,” the fire of “reputation” and romance of “Lover,” which further showcases the importance of her journey as an artist. Without the diversity of her previous releases, she wouldn’t have been able to discover what she likes and what works for her as an artist, nor would she have the luxury of being taken seriously as an experienced singer and songwriter if she had released such a themed album earlier in her career.
As I listened to the songs on “folklore,” I felt as though I was listening to elevated versions of her old work. It’s less of a problem of unoriginality as it is the artist showcasing her signature style, creating spiritual sequels out of “exile” with “The Last Time” with Gary Lightbody and “mirrorball” with “New Year’s Day.” I could go on and on about the connections I drew between songs on “folklore” and her last seven albums, but it’s also the beauty of the record for the listener to draw those relationships themselves.
Swift is at her songwriting, singing and musical best with the way she is able to evoke and portray emotion, and she does so through many different angles, revisiting and reinventing the music of hers we’ve all come to know. “Folklore” paints her sound and image in a new light, one that she and listeners make the most of in the most unique of circumstances. It may not be for everyone, but her prowess at storytelling is undeniable.
Top five: “exile (feat. Bon Iver),” “mirrorball,” “august,” “cardigan” and “my tears ricochet”
Honorable mention: “the 1”