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24 July 2020

Folklore reveals a more introspective side to Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift’s eighth studio album is her least radio-friendly work and her least autobiographical. But it is arguably her most intimate, too.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Taylor Swift learned to write songs from the movies. “I’d never been in a relationship when I wrote my first couple of albums, so these were all projections,” she explained in a 2015 interview with Elle magazine. “They were based on movies and books and songs and literature that tell us that a relationship is the most magical thing that can ever happen to you.”

A classic Taylor Swift song is like a romcom in miniature: a taut, three-minute country-inflected pop song following a traditional template, with a focus on cinematic details. The melody is irresistibly catchy; the stakes are high; the emotions are big, dramatic and earnest. The characters are heartbroken victims and callous villains. There’s a third-act twist, usually introduced in the bridge, as the drums and bass drop out before building back for a final stirring chorus that shifts slightly in perspective.

On her early records, these details are cribbed from the movies: kisses in the rain, sudden appearances on doorsteps, interrupted weddings, starry blue eyes and dramatic proposals. As Swift matured into her early 20s – and her songwriting grew more complex and layered – these details became more diaristic and no less vivid: a scarf left lingering in an ex’s drawer, glitter and candle wax stuck to the floor after a party, borrowed necklaces, awkward small talk about work and the weather, two people dancing in the light cast by an open refrigerator. Though Swift has since gone through a range of different personas and glossy production styles, and her lyrics have evolved, many of the fundamental tenets of her songwriting have remained.

Folklore, Swift’s eighth studio album, is a significant departure: it is her least radio-friendly work and her least autobiographical; but arguably her most intimate. Recorded in its entirety while she was in lockdown during the spring months of the coronavirus crisis, it sees her collaborate with Aaron Dessner of the critically-adored indie band The National (he co-wrote or produced 11 of the album’s 16 songs) as well as Justin Vernon of the folktronic Bon Iver. Using a pared-back soundscape of piano, synths, acoustic guitar, and drum machines, Swift rejects rousing pop in favour of unexpected song structures, meandering melodies and distant, soft vocals; while retaining many of her classic hallmarks. She plays with character and voice, taking on the perspectives of a 17-year-old boy called James, her own grandfather, and mid-century socialite Rebekah Harkness. The songs that do explore her own interiority are more insightful for their resistance of simple narratives: Swift is reflective, compassionate and self-questioning without being self-flagellating; exploring the same big emotions, but from a curious, critical distance.

The record opens with “The 1”, a retrospective consideration of a past relationship from the middle of Swift’s “roaring twenties” set to optimistic piano chords and crisp drums. Wistful but refreshingly lacking in regret (“I thought I saw you at the bus stop – I didn’t though,” she notes, conversationally), it takes a concept ripe for melodrama – the person you thought was “the one”, but who turned out not to be – and reassesses it with a smile and a shrug. “It would have been fun, if you would’ve been the one,” she sings over warm harmonies, mixing her well-honed knack for romantic nostalgia with a novel ease and acceptance. (After a series of short-term relationships, intensely scrutinised by tabloids, Swift has been in a relationship with the actor Joe Alwyn for four years.)

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“The Last Great American Dynasty” similarly sees Swift taking some of her most refined tricks – great scene-setting, dynamic sonic and narrative momentum, old-fashioned glamour, and a climactic switch in viewpoint – into a bold new arena to tell the story of wealthy widow Rebekah Harkness. You can find parallels with this track in the more naïve, sentimental story of 1940s sweethearts on Red’s “Starlight”; but this a more sophisticated version, with tongue-in-cheek observations: “The wedding was charming, if a little gauche / There’s only so far new money goes”.

“My Tears Ricochet” (unusually, this is her only solo songwriting credit on the entire record) sees Swift give in to more melodramatic impulses, as she imagines a man attending his spurned lover’s funeral. Over ghostly backing vocals and violins, Swift’s cracking voice revels in the theatrics of a question asked (metaphorically) from beyond the grave – “If I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?” But elsewhere, her approach to heartbreak, infidelity and loss is thoughtful and measured. “Illicit Affairs” examines the attraction of cheating without moral superiority; with intricate guitar work, and the gentlest hint of brass, it begins pensively but ends in bitterness and anger, without much resolution.

Three songs form what Swift has called “The Teenage Love Triangle”: “Cardigan”, “August” and “Betty”. “Betty”, an apology from an unfaithful 17-year-old boy to his high school sweetheart, is childlike and sincere, and the song that flirts most with Swift’s country roots: her southern accent returns on a sing-song melody amongst harmonica and twanging guitar. “Cardigan” – a sultry, mournful and distinctly grown-up ballad with notes of Lana Del Ray – is sung from Betty’s own perspective. Full of evocative snapshots – “high heels on cobblestones”; “heartbeats on the High Line” – Swift gives the teenager greater agency and foresight than she allowed herself in her early music. “When you are young, they assume you know nothing / But I knew you,” she sings. “I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired”. Completing the triangle, “August” investigates the point of view of the “other” girl. Sun-soaked and full of longing, with soporific guitar and soft saxophone, there are no moral judgements here – a far cry from songs such as Speak Now’s “Better Than Revenge” or the playfully vindictive streak in Reputation.

The most introspective songs on the record are nuanced portraits of a self in internal conflict. “Mirrorball” features fuzzy guitars and rasping vocals refracted in layered harmonies, and sees Swift interrogate her own need to perform and people-please. “I’m a mirrorball / I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight,” she sings to a circular tune that moves up and down and round and round like teacups. “I can change everything about me to fit in.” It’s a moving, frank confrontation of her driving ambitions – “I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try”. On “Seven”, a deft elegy to the lost unselfconsciousness of childhood, Swift imagines herself on her childhood swing, and again the melody mimics movement: elongating at its high point, like a pendulum in suspension, before rushing down the scale and up again. “I peaked at seven,” she sings. “Before I learned civility / I used to scream ferociously / Any time I wanted.”

Folklore contains some of Swift’s most self-examining songs. “This Is Me Trying” is an expansive, atmospheric portrait of a woman hoping to choose vulnerability over defence mechanisms in a relationship. “Mad Woman” is a melancholic ballad juxtaposed with lyrics that brim with ire; an acknowledgement of the sublimated rage of women who swallow their anger to avoid appearing “mad”, in both senses.

The sparse penultimate track “Peace” opens with a single tone frantically repeating – like a raised heartbeat, or a beeping metal detector that speeds up as it approaches a potential weapon – paired with languid guitar. Swift’s earnest vocal is both loving and cautious – alert to a threat lurking beneath perfect harmony, and the hidden high stakes of any love story. It’s not just her fame that poses a permanent risk to her relationship: Swift nods to a destructive inner streak, too – one that arguably lives in all romantic dynamics. “Danger is near,” she sings, “it’s just around the corner, darlin’ / ‘Cause it lives in me.”

Swift’s Red album has been meme-ified as the ultimate autumnal record, the harbinger of fall, the key text of “sweater weather”, with its references to scarves and falling leaves, plaid shirts and coffees and Christmas lights. Knitwear is a running theme on Folklore, from the cardigan mentioned in “Cardigan” and “Betty” (Swift is even selling a tie-in cardigan on her website) to the woollen threads of “Invisible String”. Opening with clean guitar work and a bright, carrying vocal, “Invisible String” is immediately less distant and hazy than surrounding songs, and sees Swift imagine an invisible thread linking her with her partner, as their paths cross over years, before eventually becoming knitted together. “A string that pulled me / Out of all the wrong arms,” she sings “Wool to brave the seasons / One single thread of gold / Tied me to you.”

It’s a pleasingly restrained but no less moving love song, and the romantic high-point of the album – there are lyrical parallels to “Paper Rings”, the euphoric, bubblegum love song on her previous record, Lover. “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind / For the boys who broke my heart,” she sings sweetly. “Now I send their babies presents.”

Folklore is a delicate yet bracing record, and suggests Swift might now be an artist interested in preserving the cinematic potential of love stories without reducing them to flattened tropes and neat, straightforward narratives. “You know the greatest films of all time were never made,” she sings on “The 1”. Romantic movies might be “magical”, but there’s more to life than heartbreaks and happy endings. As Swift herself told Elle, “There’s no riding off into the sunset, because the camera always keeps rolling in real life.” On Folklore, she turns to the rest of the roll.

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