Photo by Beth Garrabrant/Stoke PR
Music / Art

Folk Yeah!

Swift’s cozy new album folklore is a confident and understated departure from her usual style.

I had no idea Taylor Swift was releasing a new album. As it turns out, neither did the rest of the world. 

Following a surprise Instagram post, folklore entered the world on July 24th, just shy of a year after the release of her summer 2019 pop-album, Lover. 

Before folklore was announced, I was in a music slump. The past months of social isolation have not been healthy for my Spotify profile, slowing the turnover rate by, well, 6 months. I have largely been listening to the same thing since the horrid weekend in March when I pulled up to campus one last time as the world shut down and grew eerily quiet. By now, all those songs from the late winter are well over played, a reminder of figuring out what Zoom was for the first time and reading in my childhood bedroom–not exactly like highschool, but not quite college either. 

 As my friends said their goodbyes, my roommate and I packed our overstuffed room to the sounds of Taylor Swift’s greatest masterpiece to date, All Too Well. Five minutes and twenty-eight seconds of pure genius, my roommate might argue, largely in agreement with my twelve-year-old self. During my solo ride home that final night,  All Too Well became my steady companion, playing on a loop until I pulled into my driveway an hour later (but even then, I needed to listen to the bridge just one more time — out of respect to Taylor, of course). 

My role in the Taylor Swifts fandom is, however, not as salient as this may make it seem. In fact, until recently, I had her on the back burner, left alone to simmer for many years. But with the release of Miss Americana on Netflix at the end of January, she slowly crept back into my view. Like many, I chose to view her mega pop albums, reputation and Lover, as unworthy of my precious teenage ears. Yet this past year, as a twenty-year-old college student, I found myself lost in the limbo of a sophomore slump so deep, only the anthems of Swift’s 2008 and 2010 albums Fearless and Speak Now could revive me. 

Just as I was grappling with my drift back into the era of Taylor Swift quasi-country pop that I had spent my teenage years too uppity and musically ‘elite’ to associate with, the world fell into a live action nightmare, a global pandemic taking away every shred of normalcy I struggled to hold on to. The sentimental place Taylor Swift occupies in my memories became all the more important. Now, the familiarity of her old music did not just make me nostalgic for the era of my Hello Kitty CD player, it reminded me of my interrupted life, bringing back a flood of memories that have come to define my experience at school. Listening to Taylor Swift became a bittersweet reminder of lost times. 

Just as I was reaching peak nostalgia, consumed by months of Zoom social hours and deep dives into my camera roll, folklore was released. 

Each of Swift’s albums have represented a time in her life, lyrics hinting at certain lovers, causes for breakups, even sentimental moments from her childhood. That is the thing about Taylor Swift: as much as she is a musician, she is a storyteller.  Swift’s honesty makes her all the more appealing, creating an environment where her diary-esque albums resemble many of our own. She makes it easy to forget that she is an international pop star and most of her broken love affairs involve stars from the posters hanging in our childhood bedrooms. In her vulnerability, Taylor Swift is relatable. She is like us. 

The best parts of Taylor’s music—her ability to wiggle stories around until they feel like your own—is amplified in this album. This is the basis from which folklore was constructed; it sheds the glamour and spectacle Swift used in her era of mega pop with Lover and reputation, even portions of 1989 and Red, and allows her lyrical genius to reclaim its place in the spotlight. Paired with the breathy and whimsical accompaniments that define modern folk, each song is a bundle of emotionally charged lyrics, relaying scenes of unrequited teenage love, a history of her Rhode Island vacation house, nostalgic childhood tales and whiskey-laced apologies, a testament to her unparalleled musical mastery.  

In an Instagram post on the release date of folklore Taylor wrote, “It started with imagery. Visuals that popped into my mind and piqued my curiosity…I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t.” Her talent has reached new heights with this entrance into a new phase of storytelling, drawing on both fictional characters and real-life scenarios. The album is all the more interesting because of an influx of new perspectives and lyrical methodologies. Best represented in the infamous love triangle that unfolds in  “cardigan,” “august” and “betty,” Swift has found a way to make her album multidimensional, a mystery waiting to be discovered by listeners. As for publicity, countless articles and (users on media platforms such as TikTok examining the lyrical banter between the characters in this trilogy) add to the boisterous buzz her albums invariably generate. 

Despite what devoted fans would love to believe, the creation of the album was not a one woman show. The multiple collaborations with Jack Antoff, a long time co-writer and producer, are nothing surprising. A powerhouse in the music industry, Antoff has worked alongside Taylor on every album since 1989, taking time in between to work on other defining pop albums of the 2010s such as Lorde’s Melodrama. While he remains largely in the picture, called the “musical family” in Swift’s instagram press release, she added some new collaborators to her list for this album. 

Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, arguably the most influential figure in modern folk music, collaborated with Swift on the album’s fourth track, “exile.” The mere presence of Bon Iver on this album elevates its credibility, solidifying Swift’s step outside the realm of pop and into the land of folk. Both “exile” and “betty” are co-written by a mystery man named William Bowery, unknown even to other important collaborators and music tycoons such as Aaron Dessner. 

Aaron Dessner, guitarist and leading man of the Cincinnati indie-rock band The National, takes his spot as the most influential collaborator, receiving credit for co-writing and producing 11 of the 16 tracks on folklore. The influence of The National—whether it be from Dessner or Taylor’s love for their music—is hard to ignore. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Dessner recalls what it was like to see her embracing the “emotional current” of his music. The concept of folklore and the mythical and hyper-emotional lens it takes is sculpted from Taylor’s musical relationship with Dessner. With him, she would never create a radio pop song or fall back into the era of her youth; she would forge a new path, winding maturity into the smoky tones and piano melodies. 

That is, ultimately, exactly what she did. In an article for Rolling Stone, Jonathan Bernsetin argues that “the most surprising aspect of the album, though, is just how ultimately unsurprising it feels to hear Swift on her new shit.”. There is a confidence to folklore that runs through the veins of each song, untouched by the opinions and desires of an outside world. Plans and promotions have been stopped; with the cancellation of Lover Fest, Taylor was freed from another summer of touring her most recent pop-hits. It is easy to imagine her, left alone with no plans for the first time since the beginning of her career, sitting down to the piano and a notebook full of songs. Perhaps the romance of this image is too idyllic, but the image of candle lit rooms and half-full coffee mugs is what folklore is all about. Without the pressures of a hit-driven world, and nothing left to prove, Taylor has finally shown us her true self.