folklore – an invitation to ethereality

“Hell was the journey but it brought me heaven.”
– Taylor Swift; invisible string

I’ve spent the last two months bending over backward researching and pushing out commentary on world affairs, so it’s relatively refreshing to be able to sit down with a cup of hot chocolate, listen to an album, and review a favorite artist for a change.

Not many artists can announce an album seventeen hours before its drop and amass enough attention for a falling-of-the-sky to ensue, but Taylor Alison Swift definitely can.

In the middle of a very cruel summer and following her love for the number 13, folklore has debuted on July 24th (2+4+7) to counter the catastrophic happenings of our year thus far. After the music video premiere of cardigan, I, like so many other fans, sat through one hour and three minutes of the album, shamelessly crying to a few tracks. This is how that album made me feel:

A drive that starts in the late evening as the sunset is accompanied by a light drizzle of rain, nevertheless, you’re still able to see the golden wisps of hope in the horizon – far, but not completely out of reach. It’s as if your car were on the highway tumbling into the page of a fairy-tale, as if it’s okay to leave behind everything and everyone you’ve ever come to know and simply run away with a box of love letters and an old cardigan that reminds you of your youth.

I could almost envision Swift sitting at the piano writing this album as candles smelling of Pennsylvania burned brightly, illuminating the blown away sheets of lyrics on the hardwood floor of a little cottage shrouded heavily in forest mist.

Classified as indie-folk and alternative rock, Swift’s latest drop has once again audaciously strayed from her (old) country and (more recently) pop platforms to venture onto a whole new path. By doing this, Swift has proven that she does not write music for the accolades, rather for the fans who choose to listen to her stories – be it real or fictional – and live through it all with her.

This album was Swift’s brainchild during the worldwide pandemic lockdown, so instead of walking into a recording studio with a head filled with ideas and a phone filled with lyrics where the song can be perfected by adding layer after layer of vocals and instrumentals, Swift had to work with what she had remotely. That meant basic instruments, a lack of back-up vocals, and calls back and forth with her fellow songwriters and producers – which turned out to serve the album well. The sum of the difficulties Swift had to overcome given the circumstances gave us sixteen (excluding the bonus track) raw songs, empowered by only Swift’s mellow voice and authentic songwriting.

folklore has a very nostalgic feeling to it, like a familiar voice that sang away your consciousness when you were younger, back to remind you of the stories you’ve heard before and the cautionary tales they hold. While many say that this album is reminiscent of the earlier Taylor days, I think it’s been inside of her all along.

If we were to view folklore as a complete fairy-tale itself, then Swift as the author has vividly brought to life a selection of characters who are all different in their own way, accompanied by different struggles and pains. There is the calculating widow who is the target of hate in her own town, a friend with a traumatic childhood she can’t move past, a spirit watching her own funeral unravel, and according to Swift herself, cardigan, august, and betty depict the same teenage love triangle told from the perspective of each of the three characters involved.

Now, let’s talk about the lyrics. Many music listeners choose to value a catchy and ‘bop’ melody over heartfelt lyrics, but Swift’s latest serve gives us the best of both worlds. This might just be Swift’s most poetic album yet: “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,” said Swift.

When you separate the melody and lyrics of each song in the album, you come to see just how accomplished of a singer-songwriter Swift is, true to her name and her many awards. Perhaps it was the prolonged isolation that gave Swift the time and space to reflect and conjure these themes and motifs, or perhaps it was the uncertainty and darkness of the quarantine that unlocked these images and characters in her head. Whatever it may be, the year has been successfully redeemed by this album of subtle, lyrical pain that you can seek solace and peace in.

There is a great, observable change in the way Swift writes her lyrics and what she writes about in this very album. It’s no secret that Swift has grown vocal on politics and human rights in recent years, and that might be what prompted her to be honest and reflective. Instead of walking the love wire and singing about romance straightforwardly, Swift has decided to tell her happiness and sorrows from the perspective of somebody else, this time utilizing strong imagery to help her listeners relate better.

cardigan: “When you are young they assume you know nothing” / “Chasing shadows in the grocery line”
my tears ricochet: “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace and you’re the hero flying around saving face and if I’m dead to you why are you at the wake?”
illicit affairs: “Look at this idiotic fool that you’ve made me”
betty: “Would you tell me to go fuck myself or lead me to the garden?”
mad woman: “What a shame she went mad, you made her like that”

I mentioned the notion of a fairy-tale, and this can be substantiated by a number of lyrics. In seven, “I think you should come live with me and we can be pirates”; and in cardigan, “I knew you tried to change the ending, Peter losing Wendy”. the 1 also goes about talking of wishes and tossing pennies in the pool, something we only see manifest in fables and movies.

My favorite feature of the album was how Swift did an excellent job bringing back scenes every now and then. By this, I mean she has some subtle references to her other albums and songs, as well as within folklore. Let me explain:

In invisible string, Swift sings “Bad was the blood of the song in the cab”, which is a clear nod to her record-breaking song Bad Blood. Then, there is also the lyric in seven that goes “I hit my peak at seven-“; this lyric can be interpreted one of two ways: 1) the person Swift is singing about had a rather unfortunate childhood from the age seven onward, or 2) Swift herself has deemed Lover (her 7th studio album) to be her very best work. There’s a line in cardigan: “Once in twenty lifetimes”, which instantly brings back lyrics from Lover (Have I known you 20 seconds or 20 years?) and Daylight (I’ve been sleeping so long in a 20-year dark night). Of course, how can we forget the line in the last great american dynasty that sings “Filled the pool with champagne and swam with the big names”, a clear throwback to This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, where the singer sang “Jump into the pool from the balcony / Everyone swimming in a champagne sea”.

Swift also used this album to fuel her older songs, just like how mad woman enunciates the whole misogynistic theme of The Man. By repeating the most mundane of words such as ‘chosen family’, ‘cobblestones’, ‘streetlights’ over several songs in a moderate way, she brilliantly tied the entire album together.

By slipping in references from old albums so seamlessly, it further reinforces the fact that folklore has been paying rent in Swift’s mind as far back as the birth of 1989 and perhaps even earlier: The vibe of the album triggered me to think of Long Live (“I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you”) and come to think of it, an acoustic version of that song would’ve fit in this album perfectly.

While there are no party bangers or mistaken lyrical earworms present in this album, Swift has redefined herself as someone more mature and liberated, advancing into her thirties. She is more Taylor than she has ever been and her songs are closer to her heart than we’ve ever heard.

“A tale that becomes folklore is one that is passed down and whispered around. Sometimes even sung about. The lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible.” – T. Swift

So, that’s folklore for you; a series of tales Swift has passed down to us, and it is now up to us to keep the stories alive.

Here are my top picks:

  1. cardigan: I can relate to how the character repeats “knowing the other person” from the earlier days
  2. invisible string: reminds me of a Chinese fable 月老, a man who ties red strings of destiny around the wrists of soulmates
  3. seven: I love how the somewhat depressing and dark lyrics contrast the summer-evening-under-the-sycamore-tree tune
  4. the last great american dynasty: the most telling song on the album, depicting the history of Rebekah Harkness, the previous owner of the Rhode Island estate Swift now owns
  5. exile ft. Bon Iver: for lack of better words, an absolute fucking masterpiece of a ballad (also brings back snippets of The Last Time)