Nostalgia and reflection in Taylor Swift’s folklore

folklore was a surprise drop from Taylor Swift, full of breathy vocals, developed stories, an unusual downtempo and subdued production by Aaron Dessner.

The result is an atmospheric, contemplative album that shows Swift’s maturity and superbly honed songwriting skills. Many have compared the more minimalist indie sound with 2012 era Swift, who created the moody Red and folksy features with the musical duo, The Civil Wars. This seems a slightly forced comparison, folklore is more evolved and adventurous than Swift’s past discography.

Swift opens the album with the wry line ‘I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit’, with the same carefree feel of Lover. Though Swift certainly hasn’t forgotten ‘the one’ existed, as she reminisces of what could have been. Her laid-back front slips slightly, as she mentions almost too-casually: ‘I thought I saw you at the bus stop, I didn’t though’. The song has a slight groove, particularly in the candid chorus: ‘We were something don’t you think so? Roaring twenties, tossing pennies in the pool. And if my wishes came true, it would have been you.’

Nostalgia and her younger self

On ‘The Moment I Knew’ from Red, Swift sang ‘the one who means the most to you is the one who didn’t show’, and this is strangely echoed eight years later with ‘if you wanted me you really should have showed, and if you never bleed you’re never gonna grow, and it’s alright now’.

She rethinks this story from a more mature perspective, making her peace whilst pondering the curiosity of fate and destiny; a concept she comes back to again and again in this album, particularly on ‘invisible string’. The line ‘digging up the grave another time’ doubles as an indistinct allusion to the infamous ‘the old Taylor is dead’ from reputation. Swift seems to signpost from the fore this album will have traces of old Taylor, perhaps in its sound and the stories it tells.

Sonically, ‘invisible string’ sounds like a soft, breathy version of country Taylor. The love and heartbreak she experienced when she was younger is trivial now, as all along there was an invisible string leading her to this man (presumably Joe Alwyn, her long-time boyfriend)

‘hell was the journey but it brought me heaven’.

invisible string’, folklore

She considers accidental coincidences, memories and hindsight, travelling through time with ease. Time is first ‘curious’, then ‘mystical’ then ‘wondrous’ as it gave Swift ‘the blues and then purple-pink skies’. An apt reference to Lover and the clouds of the album’s artwork, as well as the single’s line ‘my heart’s been borrowed and yours has been blue’. Swift lays a trail of engagement hints at our feet from that line in ‘Lover’ to ‘invisible string’ wherein ‘one single thread of gold tied me to you’.

Seven’ is an excellent, unexpected song.

The use of strings and melodies evoke a deliciously mystical Fleetwood Mac vibe. Her whispery high register is divine, as is the rich gorgeous imagery of a woodsy wild childhood. Swift whispers ‘picture me … before I learned civility, I used to scream ferociously’.

Equally as ethereal is ‘my tears ricochet’, a beautiful ballad on betrayal. A muted saxophone glides alongside soft strings, emphasizing the emotion in Swift’s voice. Rather than anger, reverberating sorrow and loss drive the song forward; pointing toward a maturity that surpasses the avenging reputation era.

Lines like ‘when you can’t sleep at night, you hear my stolen lullabies’, undoubtedly address Scott Borchetta who sold Swift’s masters to Scooter Braun against her wishes. Swift appears vulnerable as she admits ‘I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace, cause when I fight you used to tell me I was brave’.

A meld of dreamy shoegaze and jangle-pop, like The Bangles meets DIIV.

‘mirrorball’ is another very different sound for Swift. The vocals are breathy and sometimes get lost amongst heavy synth. The track details an insecure, lovestruck girl who is trying to keep the attention of her love. A ‘tightrope’, ‘trapeze’ and the declaration ‘I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try try try’ ‘to keep you looking at me’ suggest a performance. Whether Swift is addressing a single object of her affections or the fickle public – sometimes cruel, sometimes adoring – she is trying hard to please. 

Like a mirrorball, Swift’s career has been multi-faceted as she has jumped between genres and personas with a tendency to reinvent herself with each body of work released. Feminist theory from Luce Irigaray comes to mind; she stated woman is a passive ‘mirror’ of the male subject in patriarchal society, their function is to reflect what men wish to see. Swift confesses an endless commitment to changing and ‘shining just for you’. The track’s sound adds to the artificial, dramatic dreamy tone of the story.

The lead single ‘cardigan’ is lana-esque, with swelling strings and strong, pretty lines.

So much better than the earsplitting travesty ‘ME’ that was Lover’s lead single; this is Swift at her best. She creates a picture with ease ‘but I knew you, dancing in your levi’s, drunk under a streetlight’. Voiced by the character of Betty, ‘cardigan’ is the beginning of a teenage love triangle between herself, James and Inez that is continued from different perspectives on ‘betty’ and ‘august’.

Swift analyses youth, mistakes, longing and infidelity with care and nuance. Betty mourns her relationship with James (‘I knew you’d haunt all of my what ifs’) after discovering he was cheating on her with Inez in the summer. Inez’s voice is tinged with vulnerability on ‘august’. Sun-drenched melodies cascade into dusky realisation as ‘august slipped away like a bottle of wine’. Dreamy with bursts of synth, the track encapsulates the shuddering teen highs and lows of joy and longing.

James apologises on ‘betty’, sincere and painfully honest, as he tries to win Betty back. The distinct sound of the harmonica creates a nostalgic, folksy tone straight from Swift’s country era. The soft insecurity of youth shines through as he questions ‘would you have me, would you want me? Would you tell me to go fuck myself?’. He admits: ‘I’m only seventeen I don’t know anything but I know I miss you, standing in your cardigan, kissing in our car again’. Rather than being a cop-out, reverting to her sweet but superficial teen romance tracks, this trilogy holds depth without being overstated.

The story of Rebekah Harkness and Holiday House is told on ‘the last great american dynasty’. 

Branded a madwoman by her town, she was considered to be too much. She gave up on the Rhodes island set, holding outrageous parties with the big names and spent all her money on ‘the boys and the ballet’. The iconic bridge parallels ‘Love Story from Fearless with its twisting reveal, that Swift identifies with Harkness as she reveals with surety ‘and then it was bought by me … I had a marvellous time ruining everything’.

Another woman who has tired of sexist bullshit is featured on ‘mad woman’. Boasting melodic and eerie keys, a matured, feminist statement is made about the treatment women face when they refuse to play by the rules of patriarchal society. Swift sings calmly of being labelled crazy or angry; ‘now I breathe flames each time I talk’. A far cry from the superficial, feminist glossy pop of ‘The Man’ on Lover

Final thoughts on folklore

Tracks like ‘this is me trying’, ‘epiphany’, ‘hoax’ and ‘peace’, rather fade into the background. None are particularly offensive, though the sudden appearance of a male voice on ‘exile’ was like an unexpected cold glass of water down the back (sorry Bon Iver) and ‘illicit affairs’ seems contradictory and repetitive after the more innocent, child-like portrayal of infidelity on ‘august’. Whilst these tracks do champion an ethereal production and occasional stellar lines, they seem rather half formed or tired in comparison to the gems earlier in the album.

Lauding this expansive work as her indie, alternative album would be reductive. Taylor can do better – don’t be shy Taylor, give us a whole album sounding like ‘seven’ and ‘mirrorball’. All the mystical Fleetwood Mac, DIIV and Lana vibes please – maybe we’ll see this on album no 9.

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