Taylor Swift delivers an intimate isolation soundtrack with surprise album ‘folklore’

Wednesday, July 29, 2020 - 7:32pm

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Not a month before quarantine started, my Taylor Swift™ snake ring snapped in half. After anxiously twisting it on and off my finger for nearly two years, the silvery metal fittingly relented in therapy. Bulky, obnoxious and glittery green — I had come to think of it as a secret signal (“I knew you were a Swiftie!”) and a conversation starter. “Oh,” I began when anyone asked me about it, “I’m a really big Taylor Swift fan.”

So it’s hard to overstate the unconscionable joy and sheer terror I felt Thursday morning when I saw that Taylor’s eighth album, folklore, was going to be released in less than 24 hours. Pre-album release rituals out the window (listen to all previous albums in consecutive order, wear all possible Taylor merch during release week, etc., etc.), all I could do was take a few selfies with the sepia-toned folklore™ filter on Instagram — and wait. 

To anyone well-versed in Taylor’s meticulous release routine, folklore is an interruption. Her lead singles are expected to roll out three to four months in advance of each new album, which are released every two years in autumn, and followed by a year-and-a-half long tour. Right on schedule, if it wasn’t for COVID-19, I would have been preparing to attend LoverFest this week, the accompanying festival to Taylor’s 2019 effort. 

But more explicitly, folklore is an interruption full stop. The pastel palette of Lover has been washed over with a melancholy gray. Sugary anthemic pop replaced with atmospheric strings, piano and acoustic guitar. Taylor has always been a poet, but with a subdued backdrop her lyrics have room to shine. While I’m not sure that one of the biggest pop stars in the world can, by definition, create something “alternative” or “indie,” folklore is certainly the closest Taylor’s ever come. With the help of The National member, songwriter and producer Aaron Dessner, and longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff, every song on folklore sounds like it could be made into a movie. The drama of love and loss is Taylor’s wheelhouse, but she’s never addressed these same themes with this kind of weight or maturity. 

Take “my tears ricochet” for example. Any Swiftie worth their salt knows the significance that its placement as “track five” holds — the fifth track of any Taylor album is its emotional compass. From her self-titled debut to 1989, they were the Big Heartbreak Songs. reputation broke the mold with the hopeful “Delicate,” clueing fans in on the fact that she and her current boyfriend were in it for the long-haul. And on Lover, “The Archer” gives insight to Taylor’s struggle with loving herself. This time around, track five invites the listener to a funeral. Potentially Taylor’s. 

“I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace” she admits, backed by ghoulish “oohs” and a gloomy keyboard, “ ‘cause when I’d fight you used to tell me I was brave.” If this doesn’t sound like your typical break-up song, it isn’t. When Taylor’s 15-year relationship with her former record label executive Scott Borchetta fell through last summer, she was crystal clear about her feelings toward him and the person who now owns her masters, or “stolen lullabies,” Scooter Braun. In a back-and-forth made public online, Taylor claimed that Borchetta hadn’t allowed her to buy back the rights to her original recordings before he sold them to Braun, one of her career-long bullies. “my tears ricochet” tells the story from a ghost’s perspective. “If I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?” she wonders while watching her tormentor attend her burial. This kind of creativity is threaded throughout folklore, demonstrating Taylor’s talent to seamlessly weave fact and fiction.

In the little Taylor herself has spoken about the album, she’s been clear about taking from many sources of inspiration. “A tale that becomes folklore is one that is passed down and whispered about … The lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible” she wrote in a social media post. In a way, folklore sounds a lot like a day in quarantine. A moment of silence slips into a strange daydream. You spend too much time cleaning under your bed, reminiscing over half-forgotten memories, then lose track of time and suddenly it’s tomorrow. Or, if you’re Taylor Swift, you get lost in the Wikipedia page of the widow who used to own your seaside Rhode Island mansion (see “the last great american dynasty”). 

What’s brilliant about folklore then, is that it’s tailor-made (Taylor-made?) to facilitate the gossip and speculation that has always circulated around her life. Just a few days old, the album has already sparked countless theories and articles detailing what every song might mean. And in assuming “my tears ricochet” is about her fallout with Big Machine — I’ve contributed. 

With that in mind, let’s examine a component of folklore that Taylor herself has confirmed — what she calls “The Teenage Love Triangle” trilogy. “cardigan” is a dreamy but somber look back at a love-gone-wrong that introduces Betty’s perspective. “I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired / and you’d be standin’ in my front porch light,” she predicts. A harmonica-infused tune with a euphoric key change, “betty” leads the character James to stand on that same front porch and try to fix things with Betty. “Standin’ in your cardigan” James reminisces, reminding her of what they had. The missing link is “august.” Washed-out in strings and synth, the other woman muses about the affair she had with James that Betty heard about — “so much for summer love,” she’s left to shrug.

If this feels like a lot to piece together, it is. And despite these three tracks’ lyrical ties to one another, plenty of other ideas regarding the triangle have been floating around the Internet as well. What everyone can agree on however, is Taylor’s ability to spin a masterful web. Whether she’s making up a fake band to get around the aforementioned masters debacle or feigning boredom on the day she wrote folklore’s lead single, it’s safe to say that everything probably isn’t all that it seems.

The wistful “the 1” shares a lyric with Lover’s “ME!” — “in my defense I have none / for never leaving well enough alone.” “seven” shows off Taylor’s higher register and recalls the scenes of her Pennsylvania childhood, seven being a prominent number in another one of Taylor’s earliest songs, “Mary’s Song (Oh My My My).” What does any of this mean? It isn’t really clear. But that’s the point. The puzzle pieces we get in the time to come is somewhat up to chance. A fan could ask a question at a meet-and-greet that sparks the lore to grow. Or a future song, or interview, or performance might shed new light on a certain track. Or, of course, these are all songs written by the same person, so they’re bound to have similarities — but where’s the fun in that?

The thing about folklore of any kind is that it requires a certain understanding of the culture in which the stories are embedded to best appreciate it. Taylor, known for album booklets with secret messages and music videos filled with “easter eggs,” keeps fans on their feet. Everything requires a second look or listen. “mirrorball,” for example, glistens on first listen, with sleigh bells ushering it along like a sleepy slow dance. But on listen 25, it sounds like Taylor’s addressing her struggle to stay in the spotlight. “I know they say the end is near / but I’m still on my tallest tiptoes,” she vows. Women in the music industry needing to constantly reinvent themselves to stay relevant is something she’s spoken on a number of times. Being a “mirrorball” to her means changing to keep the public’s attention.

My favorite lines on the record come in winks and nods to her past discography. “Bad was the blood of the song in the cab on your first trip to LA,” Taylor grins on the plucky “invisible string.” And later, “cold was the steel of my axe to grind for the boys who broke my heart / now I send their babies presents.” Like Taylor, I agree that it’s “pretty” to think that everything’s connected, no matter how mundane. Although I’ve been gifted several new snake rings since mine broke in March, I must admit I haven’t been wearing any recently. It’s nice to think that in the midst of all this chaos, I’ve still managed to turn a chapter — and now I have a new soundtrack to fill it.