Taylor Swift soars beautifully high in her newest album, offering an intimate, heartwarming and, once again, deeply personal collection of songs.
It’s quite hard to describe folklore and its importance to anyone who hasn’t listened to it. On the one hand, it feels unrecognisably distant from the music that Taylor Swift has released in the past, while on the other hand, it’s her most recognisable album yet. No longer is there a singular semblance of the country-queen from Taylor Swift, Fearless or Speak Now, nor of the pop-princess that reared her head with the phenomenal Red before seemingly being killed off in the shake-up of 2017. ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ became a new anthem for Swifties around the world and created a controversial new high for the singer. 2019’s Lover set out to consolidate the anger and disdain that Swift felt towards her younger-self and those she had warred with, and epitomises on a newfound mantra of self-loving, strong femininity and maintaining your voice.
In every album, Swift has cautiously interlinked her work and created a progression of sound that no modern musician has quite eclipsed or even come close to. folklore only cements this as an ever more solid fact. If we ever wondered whether Taylor Swift could become an even better musician than she was before, folklore asserts that Swift is in her prime, and it doesn’t look like she’ll be stumbling anytime soon. Heartfelt, phenomenal and filled with an unmistakable ambience, folklore isn’t just a great album but in its own way, a great piece of storytelling and artistic progression.
Starting with ‘the 1’, Swift lures us in with an arrangement of chords on the piano and a couple of percussion instruments before nailing the first line of “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit”. It’s sung in such a matter-of-the-fact way that it almost seems casual in design and immediately boasts the first development that folklore offers. Where Reputation used profanity as a potent edge to its songs, the casual use of it in ‘the 1’ consolidates Swift’s reputation in Reputation with the change in tone that Lover offered. It begs a feeling that is ingrained in all of Swift’s discography and becomes an amalgamation of the journey she’s had up to this point, while simultaneously setting up the next steps she’ll take. The song is the perfect tone-setter since it’s so deeply reflective and poetically apt, putting Swift’s lyricism at the forefront of the album.
What follows is ‘cardigan’, the album’s lead single that embodies the same soothing tones of piano and light drums while addressing themes of love, youth and presumed naivety. It’s filled with loving sentiments but still boasts a side to Swift that’s very aware of the world around her, and maintains a disavowal of the notion that “when you are young, they assume you know nothing”. Just because it’s a song about love and finding someone, that doesn’t that it can’t still address the wider world. ‘cardigan’ establishes itself as a song that’s constantly aware of the backdrop of time that it’s situated within; it’s much more than a simple love song.
The following track, ‘the last great american dynasty’, is one of the many songs on the album that sets out tell a story, rather than focus on continued notions of love. It provides a great detour from the previous two songs. ‘the last great american dynasty’ still carries itself as thematically similar with a focus on women and female experience but has a more 1989 or Lover vibe to it than the more indie-alternative style of the other songs on folklore. It’s probably one of my favourite songs on the record in fact, but that statement seems hardly worthwhile when I found myself thinking the same for more than half of the album.
The only song that’s a collaboration on folklore is ‘exile’, wherein Swift pairs up with Bon Iver for some musical magic. A piano melody starts the song before the deep, soothing tones of Bon Iver’s frontman, Justin Vernon, sweep in, as he sings the voice of a man who finds himself opposite his ex-lover and their new partner. In contrast, Swift’s higher-pitched but just as soothing voice assumes the perspective of the female ex-lover, who sings her side of the story in the build-up to the bridge, wherein both singers meet and create genuine chills as they perfectly harmonise. What’s refreshing is that ‘exile’ is a song about perspective that doesn’t have a clear victim or wrong-doer; it boasts a deeply-matured Swift that’s wholeheartedly refreshing to listen to. As another song that’s shrouded in a narrative, it samples the language of film that crops up frequently throughout the album and creates a sense that folklore is a continuation of a story, helping to formulate that Swift’s entire discography is a coherent whole that tells the personal story of Taylor Swift.
Following songs like ‘my tears ricochet’ are further demonstrations of Swift’s poetic prowess, with said song boasting some of the finest lyrics on the whole album. ‘mirrorball’ hones in on the sound Swift established in Lover and attempts to celebrate it. I’ll be honest though, ‘mirrorball’ feels like the weakest song on folklore because it’s helplessly cluttered with sounds and noises that detract from the real showcase of listening to the lyrics and Swift’s voice. It’s by no means a bad song, and I haven’t skipped it once, but when succeeded by my favourite song ‘seven’, it just doesn’t fare that well. ‘seven’ stands out so much for me because when listening to it I often found my mind drawing comparisons to another great female singer, Lana Del Rey. That’s not to say Swift steals or even tries to mirror Rey’s sound, but there’s a dreamy pop feeling to the song. It revolves around the soft strumming of the guitar that plays along with the piano once again to pure perfection. ‘seven’ is a song that celebrates youth and childhood, drawing from the imagery of these themes to create a standout moment that’s unique in its musicality for being one of the more upbeat songs on folklore, leading excellently into the following song, ‘august’.
The second half of the album continues with unabated success as well and follows similar themes and sounds that just continue to establish the LP as a highlight of an already prosperous career. The songs ‘invisible strings’ and ‘betty’ contain hints of those country roots that Swift started off with but don’t immerse themselves completely in the genre, taking elements and merging them with a progression of sound that makes them accessible even for those that really don’t like country. The song ‘epiphany’ is tragically beautiful and carries the same sentiments without revolving around solely on Swift’s life. It sees a bigger picture in the world and addresses them with an ethereal quality that makes the song incredibly moving as well as profoundly sad. ‘this is me trying’ and ‘peace’ are perhaps a little too simple for their own good, but they continue to work in their beautiful lyricism; they just made me want to close my eyes and really think about what Swift was singing about.
The last two songs that deserve some attention have to be ‘mad woman’ and ‘hoax’. For ‘mad woman’ the song just works so well because it contains that attitude and venomous sting that Swift has justified over her career. With lyrics like “does a scorpion sting when fighting back? They strike to kill, and you know I will” or “now I breathe flames each time I talk”, the Swift I loved in Reputation maintains a subtle presence in folklore, but in a way, it seems much more accomplished than her previous bombastic attitude. The lyrics are juxtaposed beautifully by the soothing melody, and it just speaks to a greater level of maturity and growth that makes folklore feel rewarding for the listener; we feel like we’re watching Swift constantly grow as a musician and a person. However, the final song on the streaming-service playlist (purchased deluxe editions have an extra song called ‘the lake’), ‘hoax’, is the perfect conclusion to a near-perfect album. With a lullaby appeal that works perfectly in the context of the album being called folklore, it serves as a painful exit for the record, as it draws to the conclusion of ”don’t want no other shade of blue but you, no other sadness in the world would do”. It’s focus on pain and despondency ends the album with a feeling of melancholy and mourning; it’s utterly heartbreaking but rounds out the album to a perfect conclusion.
At the time of writing this review, I’ve listened to folklore four times in less than 12 hours, and with each new listen, I feel I gleam a little something more from its meaning. It’s wholeheartedly my favourite Taylor Swift album, surpassing my love for 1989 and Reputation respectively, and going to be an album that I foresee as listing as one of my favourite albums ever. It has a few stumbles along the way, but even then these stumbles feel meaningful, and if they were left off from the final product, I don’t think the album would feel as wholesome or complete as it does in the state it is in now. A truly remarkable piece of lyric writing, music and everything in between.
folklore is available to listen to now via Republic Records. Watch the music video for ‘caridgan’ below: