Folklore: Tales, Traditions, and Taylor Swift

On July 23, Taylor Swift surprised fans worldwide by announcing a midnight album-drop—an unprecedented move by an artist who is known for carefully-orchestrated “Easter egg hunts” and well-timed single releases. The record, she wrote on social media, would consist of 16 tracks largely co-written with The National Aaron Dessner and include a Bon Iver feature. Taylor wasn’t just releasing a surprise album—she was releasing her first alternative album.

Taylor is no stranger to genre-crossing, having written songs that topped both country and pop charts. folklore isn’t her first foray into indie territory, either; her 2012 collaboration with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody gave us one of her best duets, “The Last Time.” That same year, she teamed up with The Civil Wars to write “Safe & Sound” for The Hunger Games soundtrack. Even “22,” one of her poppiest tracks, has a memorable line about an “indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” Taylor is also a self-proclaimed The National “stan.” All this is to say that folklore has been a long time coming.

A trademark feature of Taylor’s songs is their focus on her personal life, something that has both brought her praise and much unwanted attention. Both the media and her fans go to great lengths to track the subjects of her lyrics, which are sometimes hinted at in the song title themselves (“Dear John” is about John Mayer, “Style” is about Harry Styles [allegedly]) or otherwise addressed through clues (Taylor used to capitalize letters in her lyric books to spell out secret messages). Since the Lover era, however, Taylor has been vocal about the evolving scope of her songwriting. She’s not just writing about her personal life anymore, but drawing inspiration from books, films, and friends.

Folklore makes a triumphant return to Taylor’s storytelling roots, and three of the album’s best songs form a narrative arc: “august,” “betty,” and “cardigan” (coincidentally “ABC”). As Taylor explained in a YouTube comment shortly before the “cardigan” video dropped, there are three songs on the album that form a “teenage love triangle.” The three players in this triangle appear in “betty”—Betty, James, and an unnamed “she.” The song is sung from the perspective of James, who recalls a summer where he falls in love with Betty but then ends up in a fling with another girl who invites him into her car. The song ends with him making it up to Betty (musically, through a very welcome key shift), showing up on her porch and letting her know that he misses her. Here’s how Betty ends:

Yeah, I showed up at your party
Will you have me? Will you love me?
Will you kiss me on the porch
In front of all your stupid friends?
If you kiss me, will it be just like I dreamed it?
Will it patch your broken wings?
I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything
But I know I miss you

Standing in your cardigan
Kissin’ in my car again
Stopped at a streetlight
You know I miss you

Now, “cardigan” is written from Betty’s perspective. Although “betty” and “cardigan” are sonically quite different (“betty” is country and harmonica-laden, “cardigan” is more alternative), both songs share similar motifs:

I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired
And you’d be standing in my front porch light […]
And when I felt like I was an old cardigan
Under someone’s bed
You put me on and said I was your favorite

So “cardigan” shows us that there is a happy-ish ending for Betty and James, who end a tortuous summer by reconciling. By the way, I like that “cardigan” falls into the clothing line of Taylor Swift songs over the years, joining “Tim McGraw’s” “little black dress” and the “Dress” of reputation. As the album’s first single, “cardigan” also has the sonic flair and catchy hook that make it a strong contender for radio airplay.

So it’s a love story for Betty and James, but how about our unnamed troublemaker who got between them? “august,” the most pop-reminiscent and arguably most “fun” song on the album, is sung from her perspective (“remember when I pulled up and said “get in the car?”). The song invites us to empathize with her, for whom “august slipped away like a bottle of wine, ’cause you were never mine.” The best part of the song is the surge at 3:09.

Although “ABC” may be the holy trinity of folklore, its themes are still resonant in the other tracks on the album. The opening track, aptly named “the 1” (“august” is track 8, “seven” is track 7, I see what you did there, Taylor), laments that “the one” got away, setting us up for the loss in “cardigan” that immediately follows as track 2. It’s a springy song that ties remorse and optimism together, just as “cardigan” paints a sad ending as a romantic compromise. Interestingly, both songs are also connected by motifs of days long gone—“roaring twenties” and “vintage tees.” The theme of infidelity explored in ABC also finds fuller volume in “illicit affairs,” a haunting track about the heartbreak that romantic betrayal brings. Unlike Taylor’s typical “you-burned-me-so-I’ll-burn-you” songs about broken promises, though, “illicit affairs” is decidedly more helpless and somber. It’s less assertive, but more mature and vulnerable than her other cheating-themed songs such as “Should’ve Said No,” “Better Than Revenge,” and “Getaway Car.”

As a “quarantine” album, folklore makes its starkest pandemic reference in “epiphany,” a song that begins by alluding to Taylor’s grandfather Dean, who served in the 1942 Battle of Guadalcanal. In the second verse, however, the song fast-forwards a few decades to today:

Something med school did not cover
Someone’s daughter, someone’s mother
Holds your hand through plastic now
“Doc, I think she’s crashing out”
And some things you just can’t speak about

By drawing an analogy between the PTSD of wartime and pandemic times, “epiphany” is a subtle but moving nod to healthcare workers on the frontlines who “dream of some epiphany … to make some sense of what you’ve seen.”

Lyrically, the best song on the album is “the last great american dynasty,” which really goes to show Taylor’s storytelling potential. “Rebekah rode up on the afternoon train, it was sunny,” begins the song. “Her saltbox house on the coast took her mind off St. Louis….” The song tells the story of Rebekah Harkness, an oil heiress/composer/philanthropist whose story is intertwined by glamour and tragedy. Throughout the song, Taylor tells us about Rebekah’s life while artfully describing her own—Rebekah was the owner of Taylor’s now-infamous Rhode Island mansion. During their time in the mansion, Taylor and Rebekah were known for throwing big parties, having a ‘girl squad,’ and upsetting local authorities. It’s a tongue-in-cheek song that’s both a fascinating history lesson and a very big flex. “And then it was bought by me,” sings Taylor in the song’s turning point (the house sold for $17.75 million), reinserting herself into the song’s narrative. “tlgad” has the same chaotic energy as “Blank Space,” for both songs are sung from the perspective of someone who calls herself “mad” while reminding you that she’s also mad successful and mad rich.  Speaking of “mad,” the song “mad woman” is a fitting follow-up to “The Man,” although the former has more of a gothic-woodsy aesthetic than the latter. “mad woman” might not dominate the pop charts the way “The Man” did, but it certainly gets the message across in a spookier way (the song is believed to be a reference to Taylor losing her masters to Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun).

As much as folklore focuses on other stories and perspectives, the album absolutely shines when we see Taylor getting introspective and self-referential (some might say that the “Old Taylor” is back). One of the loveliest songs on the album is “seven,” which takes us back to a childhood memory in Pennsylvania. Taylor sings it in a high, effortless falsetto, a style that suits her far more than the belting style of pop. Another close favorite of mine is “invisible string,” which has the loveliest guitar opening and catchiest run, courtesy of Aaron Dessner. It’s a welcome reprieve from the album’s sadder songs. The lyrics are on-point too, with verse 2 being my favorite. It’s funny that Taylor references “Bad Blood”—the two songs could not sound more different.

Bad was the blood of the song in the cab
On your first trip to LA
You ate at my favorite spot for dinner
Bold was the waitress on our three-year trip
Getting lunch down by the Lakes
She said I looked like an American singer

An invisible (or not-so-invisible) string ties the many songs in this album together as well. The lakes alluded to in “invisible string” reappear in the album’s bonus track (“the lakes”), which draws heavily on the imagery of romantic poets. With lyrics like “I want auroras and sad prose / I want to watch wisteria grow right over my bare feet,” the song is a bit too saccharine for my tastes, personally, even though I spent an entire quarter reading romantic poetry in college. But it’s always nice to get a bonus track from Taylor—the last time we had one was in the 1989 era.

My review of any Taylor album wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t touch on track 5, which in Swift lore is traditionally the most emotional song on the album. Track 5 of folklore, “my tears ricochet,” is the first song Taylor wrote for the album, and like “The Archer” from Lover, it has a slow payoff. It’s not one of my top picks, but it does have the sharpest retort in the album: “if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?” Despite the melancholy reputation of track 5s, I often find that other songs on Taylor’s albums pull more emotional weight. In the case of folklore, it’s the two songs that sandwich “my tears ricochet.” Track 4, “exile,” is Taylor’s best collaboration to date (sorry, Gary Lightbody). The Bon Iver feature is a dramatic call-and-response between two ex-lovers who are watching the metaphorical credits of their love story start to roll. Who thought that pairing the grittiness of Justin Vernon’s baritone with Taylor’s soft vocals would be such a good idea? “exile” is exemplary. Track 6, “mirrorball,” sounds just like a sparkly disco ball and yet describes someone who is as fragile as one—liable to shatter into a million pieces. Taylor’s vocals are carefully layered in a continuous harmony in “mirrorball,” as if she were lost in a crowd or out of reach. In terms of production and execution, both songs overshadow track 5 to my ears.

Overall, the album moves at a measured, nostalgic pace, making the black-and-white woodland backdrop a fitting image for the cover. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that some of the songs are a bit too slow—“this is me trying” feels a bit too trying to me, and the shiniest part of the song is its over-too-soon bridge. It does have some stellar lines (“they told me all of my cages were mental, So I got wasted like all my potential”), but the song as a whole does not take flight. This is not to say that I was not a fan of the slower, stripped-down songs on the album, though; “peace” and “hoax,” the two closing tracks, were some of my early favorites when I first started listening to folklore. Like “seven,” they present Taylor in her vocal strong suit: singing clearly, honestly, and tenderly. Unlike many of the other tracks on the album, “peace” and “hoax” also sound like songs from the present, not the nostalgic past. Perhaps they feel more grounded in this way.

Composed entirely during isolation, folklore presents us with Taylor in ultimate focus-mode, and seeing her introspection and imagination run wild on this album has been a silver lining in quarantine. Things I would love to see from the folklore era include a live/virtual performance (especially of “exile”), a movie-music video of the ABC arc, and more insight on the making of the album. Also, it would be great if Taylor could reveal the identity of the elusive William Bowery—an anonymous cowriter on “betty” and “exile.” But Taylor loves mystery after all, which is an important element of some of the best stories. We’ll just have to wait and see where her visionary mind takes us next!

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