Taylor Swift’s attentive followers know to look for Easter eggs in everything she does. They know that every move she makes is part of a sequence of orchestrated breadcrumbs and puzzle pieces, from deleting her entire Instagram grid for reputation’s release, to incorporating pops of pastel in her red-carpet fashion to signal Lover’s arrival. However, in this season of apocalypse, timelines and schedules have proven their fragility, and Swift has clearly made the required adjustments. Consequently, when our attention was elsewhere (as it often has been for the most of 2020), folklore was dropped onto our laps.
Swift’s new album, which is arguably her magnum opus, offers respite and catharsis in a tempestuous age. folklore’s escapism and haunting emotion provide a ‘glimpse of relief to make some sense of what [we]’ve seen’, to echo Swift’s own words in ‘epiphany’, the album’s thirteenth track. Songs like ‘invisible string’ and ‘peace’ exhibit the autobiography and confessionalism that Swift has honed and perfected over her 13-year career, but what really shines through and through is her powerful knack for storytelling. The Grammy award-winning songwriter immerses herself into scenarios that move beyond her lived experience, but are identifiably Swiftian in the way they deal with themes of love, scrutiny and homecoming. For instance, in the song ‘seven’, Swift uses the backdrop of playground companionship to contemplate the blazing permanence of love through nostalgia and childlike innocence.
Swift further produces a trilogy of songs that tell the tale of an adolescent love triangle: ‘cardigan’, ‘august’ and ‘betty’. The narrator of ‘cardigan’ possesses a recognizable old-soul maturity, repeating nonchalantly with an all-knowing cadence, ‘when you are young they assume you know nothing.’ In stark contrast, the protagonist of ‘betty’ pleads, ‘i’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything’, as she fumbles to make amends after cluelessly betraying her sweetheart’s trust. Meanwhile, the breezy pulse of ‘august’ tells the tale of a doomed affair against a fleeting summer backdrop, revealing that the seductress in the story is in fact a lovesick schoolgirl pining after someone she can’t completely have. The recurring imagery of front porches, schoolrooms and kisses in cars in each of these songs complement the skillful narrative intersection of innocence, infatuation and affliction.
The almost mythological implications of the album’s title are what run so remarkably through every lyric, and this is especially rewarding for the fans familiar with Swift’s expansive discography. This is evident in ‘the great american dynasty’, which harbours resemblance to Swift’s previous songs like ‘Starlight’ and ‘The Lucky One’, blurring history with personal memoir. The song is based on Rebekah Harkness, the previous inhabitant of Swift’s Rhode Island home, and draws parallels between the 30-year-old songwriter’s own misadventures and a widow’s patterns of destruction and self-sabotage. Swift sings, ‘There goes the maddest women this town has ever seen’, a motif reintroduced in the twelfth song on the album, ‘mad woman’. This song manifestly reflects her fight for the ownership of her masters against her previous record label; folklore is Swift’s eighth album, but only the second that she truly owns. Swift gloriously infuses her frustration and scorn in this empowering and audacious feminist anthem, alluding to witch hunts and a Bertha Mason-esque narrator.
In folklore, the celebrated songwriter finds an arresting balance of tragedy and escapism, making an apt soundtrack for these unsettling times. In ‘exile’, she collaborates with Bon Iver to portray a relationship marred by miscommunication, fractured past the point of reconciliation. The two characters seem to speak over each other, saying ‘You never gave a warning sign/ I gave so many signs’, and Swift gives each perspective its own due attention and nuance in her writing. In ‘this is me trying’, Swift details a heartbreaking account of living with the burden of your mistakes and worst habits; ‘at least I’m trying,’ the narrator weakly tries to convince herself in repetitive echoes. The aforementioned song ‘epiphany’ draws parallels between war and contagion, dealing with the looming presence of death in the evocative minimalism of its lyrics. It’s a poignant requiem for the survivors and the martyrs; Swift sings of ‘some things you just can’t speak about’, and the audience immediately knows.
It’s difficult to do justice to all 16 songs on the album in the same way that Swift cradles them with her pristine composition and songwriting. Alongside her collaborators Aaron Dessner, Jack Antonoff, and William Bowery (whose identity remains a mystery), Swift has masterfully woven stories and images together, bound by heavenly production and instrumental experimentation. The album is ethereal, tragic, glittery and earthy all at once. Swift dons different costumes – a mirrorball, an unhinged widow, a clandestine lover – to entertain and thrill her audience like the true showman she is. But as enthralling as it is to venture through the thickets of folklore’s mythical wonderland pointing at the dazzling dreamscapes and tapestries, the real artistry is the emotional catharsis and consolation that Swift offers her listeners in isolation. In folklore, Taylor Swift is simply walking us the long way home.
Image: Reputation Stadium Tour in May 2018 via Wikimedia Commons