September 29, 2020

“Calamitous Love and Insurmountable Grief”

posted on: Thursday September 3, 2020

folklore Proves Taylor Swift’s Range and Depth

by Madison Palmieri ’22 A&E Staff

ALBUM COVER COURTESY OF TAYLOR SWIFT / REPUBLIC RECORDS

For Taylor Swift fans, these uncertain times have brought an unexpected gift: the singer’s eighth studio album, folklore, which was announced on July 23 and then released at midnight on July 24.

Swift explained the concept behind the album on Instagram: “It started with imagery. Visuals that popped into my head and piqued my curiosity…Pretty soon these images in my head grew faces or names and became characters. 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…I’ve told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve.”

folklore accomplishes just this. Arguably Swift’s most cohesive album, it is also her most mature, both thematically and lyrically. Composed mainly of stripped-back ballads and forgoing made-for-radio hits, folklore introduces casual listeners to the thoughtful storytelling and lyrics for which devoted fans have long admired Swift.

One such fan, Katie Vennard ’22, says, “folklore feels as though you are sitting at a campfire with Taylor Swift herself and she is telling you a ghost story or cautionary tale. This album is haunting, pure poetry, and reminiscent of Swift’s previous albums.”

While folklore certainly draws upon the singer’s previous work, it stands apart from her first seven albums. Maria Gentile ’22 believes, “folklore is somewhat of a game-changer for Swift because of the way that it was advertised and the type of music it consists of. Taylor has proven that she’s a multi-talented artist who can produce an album of any genre and advertise in any way and still be successful. And I think the album is absolutely fantastic and really shows off her incredible voice and lyrics.”

Indeed, from the opening verse to the final chorus, folklore’s composition and delivery is exquisite. For instance, in “the 1,” Swift reminisces about lost love, wondering what might have been if “one thing had been different” and commenting upon imaginary aspects of reality with lyrics like “You know the greatest films of all time were never made.” 

The album’s lead single, “cardigan,” is a haunting ballad in which the narrator recalls a former flame “putting her on” even when others  discarded her like “an old cardigan under someone’s bed.” The repeated lines “When you are young, they assume you know nothing” and “But I knew you” perfectly illustrate the paradox of youth: simultaneous self-assurance and naivety. The song also references actual folklore in the line “Tried to change the ending / Peter losing Wendy.”

“the last great american dynasty” tells the story of Rebekah Harkness, the former owner of Swift’s Rhode Island mansion who “had a marvelous time ruining everything.” The singer draws a parallel between herself and Harkness, singing about how she also “had a marvelous time ruining everything” by not living according to others’ expectations.

“exile,” a duet with Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon, is the story of a broken relationship with a lack of communication demonstrated by lyrics such as “’Cause you never gave a warning sign (I gave so many signs)” in which the singers not only echo one another’s words, but also appear to talk over one another. Motifs of patriotism drive the track in lines like “I think I’ve seen this film before / And I didn’t like the ending / You’re not my homeland anymore / So what am I defending now?”

In “my tears ricochet,” the narrator feels betrayed, but recognizes that their betrayer also feels the pain of their fractured relationship. Lyrics such as “And if I’m dead to you why are you at the wake?” imbue the song with the emotional depth for which Swift’s fifth tracks are known. This emotion carries over into “mirrorball,” which can perhaps be best described as a disco-lullaby in which Swift remarks “I can change everything about me to fit in,” using the metaphor of the mirrorball to further develop a motif first explored in reputation.

“seven” speaks of the innocent love shared between childhood friends. The narrator wistfully reminisces on her early years, remembering that “Before I learned civility / I used to scream ferociously / anytime I wanted.” The track is grounded with a simple piano melody that evokes nostalgia for time gone by, a theme continued in “august,” narrated by a  jilted woman reminiscing about when she believed she’d found something real in a failed summer love affair.

The stripped-back “this is me trying” sees a narrator attempting to make amends with a past lover and appears to be autobiographical, as exhibited in lyrics like “I’ve been having a hard time adjusting / I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting” and “They told me all my cages were mental / So I got wasted like all my potential.” These lines reflect the fear of fading from prominence that musical artists face. Similarly acoustic is “illicit affairs” in which Swift narrates the fallout of a forbidden romance through tragic, colorful verse.

In one of the most clear references to folklore on the album, “invisible string” presents a modern take on the East Asian legend of the Red String of Fate in which a thread ties soulmates together. The narrator references personal details of her and her partner’s lives, musing, “Isn’t it just so pretty to think / All along there was some / Invisible string / Tying you to me?” As with other songs in the album, the juxtaposition of the magical and mundane dominates this delicate tune.

While “mad woman” cunningly address allegations against Swift’s character and condemns her detractors, suggesting that their hatred forced her to become said “mad woman,” “epiphany” is full of vulnerability and emotion, comparing Swift’s grandfather’s experience fighting in World War II to the war-like conditions that frontline workers are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her desperation to understand the reason for these horrors reads almost like a prayer: “Only twenty minutes to sleep / But you dream of some epiphany / Just one single glimpse of relief / To make some sense of what you’ve seen.”

Fans of Swift’s early albums will be excited to see that she returns to her country roots with “betty,” a harmonica-heavy ballad about the sort of young love that defined her early hits. While the song’s arrangement and subject matter are both simplistic, its delivery is timeless and its youthful tone perfectly contrasts with the maturity of the following track, “peace,” in which Swift declares with guitar riffs and an indie-rock sound that “Our coming of age has come and gone” and ponders the entanglement of her personal and private lives, asking her partner, “Would it be enough if I could never give you peace?”

Although the official closing track, “hoax,” is a melancholy exploration of the difficulties that accompany love, the bonus track, “the lakes,” offers a more optimistic view on the matter. In the song, named for the Lake District, Swift name-drops one of its most famous residents, William Wordsworth, as she fantasizes about escaping into nature and away from the stresses of modern life, which is full of “cynical clones/These hunters with cell phones.” But, like a modern-day Romantic poet, she declares that she will not embrace this lifestyle without her “muse.” Whether she’s referencing her partner, her friends, her family, or even her fans, this declaration signifies that Swift will masterfully reinvent herself again just as she has done so many times before.

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