'folklore' album review
Taylor Swift’s surprising announcement of a new album brought little to no excitement to me. While I will not lie and claim that I am no longer a fan of Taylor Swift– I have not truly been impressed by an album since ‘Red’. I knew I’d listen to the album when it dropped, but I was expecting to find maybe one or two songs I loved, as I had done with ‘1989’, ‘Reputation’ and ‘Lover’. Perhaps the sheer surprise and lack of anticipation is what has made me so impressed with ‘folklore’ but I believe, like many others, I finally got the sequel to ‘Red’ I had been waiting for.
The opening of ‘folklore’ leads one to wonder what would have become of Taylor Swift if she was not so obsessed with her success and monetizing her talent. ‘1989’ felt like an abrupt change in her career and for years I longed for the sound she was gravitating toward in her fourth album. Although it seems that it took a global pandemic for Taylor Swift to return to making music for the sake of making it, ‘folklore’ proves her ‘Red’ era self is not as dead as her lead single from Reputation proclaimed. The album as a whole is clearly one of her best and seems to be a wholehearted tribute to the album she thought was her best (and one I wholeheartedly acclaim is her best) For personal preference and clarity, I will dissect 'folklore' track by track.
this song feels like an older Taylor Swift is reflecting on the love she found with Red’s outro ‘Begin Again’ (or at least that is the story I came up with in my head for this Red continuation album). She once again returns to the jaded maturity that persisted on her older tracks. Unlike her last three albums, it seems this album was made for her first, and then the world (as all music should be). My one complaint about the lead track: I cannot ignore her reference back to “Me!” in the chorus. It’s clear Swift relates heavily to the cliche of being a perfectionist, but the reference gives me flashbacks to the disappointment of hearing Lover’s lead single for the first time. Further, the word ‘shit’ coming out of a Taylor Swift song was unexpected and refreshing– but the repetition in saying ‘new shit’ and ‘cool shit’ felt similar to the slightly cringey and forcibly relatable hook in Reputation’s ‘Delicate’ “Is it cool that I said all that? Is it chill that you’re in my head?” However, it is easy to overlook– and this track is among my most played from 'folklore'
Cardigan gives one nostalgia for the piano ballad of “All Too Well.’ However, this song is probably the most disappointing off of ‘folklore’ (such a disappointing lead single!) The verses are thoughtful and interesting, but the beat and chorus are bland. Not to mention how frustrating Swift’s cardigan campaign has been. Lyrically the song is beautiful, but it is a yawn on an otherwise compelling album. Swift’s metaphors have become slightly less impressive over the years– but I think comparing herself to an old sweater was a cheap bribe to those who deem their music taste ‘indie'
The opening beat of this song makes one reminiscent of a Postal Service song. The historical context reminds one of Red’s “Starlight” (not to mention the repetition of the word ‘marvelous’) and the feminist and regrettable undertones add additional parallels to “The Lucky One.” The lyrics of this track seem to pull any loose strings of folklore and tie them together in a catchy, lighthearted tune. It also seems to be a better tribute to Swift’s Gatsby level lifestyle than Reputation’s “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” because it leaves out the petty resentment and emphasizes a light-hearted message similar to “girls just want to have fun.”
The chorus of this song is perhaps the strongest metaphor on this album (‘You were my town, now I’m in exile seeing you out’). Again, 'exile' seems to follow the ‘Red’ recipe with mimics of ‘The Last Time’ even in the deep percussion of Bon Iver’s voice. It seems Swift achieved a more painful version of Ed Sheeran’s “Happier” with her lyric complexity. Like Gary Lightbody in Red’s ‘The Last Time’, the duet of this track contributes to the overall tragedy. However, I do think this song is rather overhyped, rather skippable, and far from the best on the album– despite Bon Iver's feature.
Theorized to be about record executive Scooter Braun, this song reminds one that heartbreak can be experienced even without a romantic partner. With similarities to Kesha’s “Praying” and beautiful imagery that reminds one of The Band Perry’s “If I Die Young”, the emotion in Swift’s vocals make this one of the most believable heartbreak’s of Swift’s life. The bridge’s canon strength reminds one of the taunting Swift experienced during her legal battle with Big Machine Records.
The high school imagery that seems to percolate in every Taylor Swift album seems to take a path of subtlety in ‘folklore.’ Unlike her explicit references to football games, cheerleaders, or mean girls, Swift seems to chase the vibe of a high school homecoming dance in ‘mirrorball’ (and seems to make tasteful references in later tracks). While I am still confused as to why Swift continuously chooses to make high school romance a theme in her albums, ‘mirrorball’ seems to take a more mature perspective than songs like Lover’s ‘Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince.’ Swift seems to achieve great vulnerability in this song as well, with lyrics such as ‘I’ve never been a natural, all I do is try.’ While everyone seems to understand this about Swift, it was a surprisingly vulnerable thing to hear her sing.
Many reviews draw explicit references in this song to 1989’s ‘Wildest Dreams.’ I see the similarity in its imagery, but I find this song much more characteristic of Swift– rather than her going for a sound that simply is not hers. The chorus in this song is unbelievable; simple yet evokes such powerful visuals. Swift achieves a deeper level of yearning in ‘seven’ with melancholic questions, overly protective reassurances and also singing of a love that also doesn’t necessarily seem romantic.
As someone who knows Swift’s entire discography pretty well, I see a lot of symbolism coming out of a song entitled “august” (Taylor often explicitly mentions ‘July’ and ‘September’). The chorus in this song is a softer, more heartfelt ‘Cruel Summer’ (very deep similarities in the Cruel Summer bridge ‘I’m drunk in the back of the car…’ and august’s outro ‘When I pulled up and said get in the car and then cancelled my plans just in case you called,’). Unlike many of Swift’s songs that speak of a romance gone sour, ‘august’ seems to again show a maturity never before seen by Swift as she reasserts the idea of knowing her lover was ‘Never mine.’ Many speculate this is an older version of the narrator from ‘Tim McGraw.’ The prominent guitar strings also brings nostalgia for Sixpence None The Richer’s ‘Kiss Me.’ The long instrumental outro, while unusual for Swift, is enjoyable. Sonically, this is probably the strongest track on ‘folklore.’
Swift takes her shot at her own version of bedroom pop with this track. With a similar intro to 1989’s ‘I Know Places,’ Swift places the listener in an echo chamber to listen to her attempt at coming clean. She seems to sing with a deeper vocal, mimicking the way one might sound after crying. ‘Folklore’ has clear strength in Swift’s vulnerability and lack of motive. While aimless, this song seems to follow her train of thought– is she talking to a lover or the world in general? Either way, this song evokes deep emotion and the simplistic beat of the drums add to the overall feeling of Swift’s candor.
Swift has an undeniable ability to romanticize love, however this track seems to show her ability to beautifully describe some of the worst parts of any relationship. Unlike her previous albums, this song seems to only blame herself. Swift’s voice on this track is most similar to the vocals on Speak Now– illicit affairs seems to be a less pointed version of Swift’s ‘Dear John.’ The bridge is perhaps one of Swift’s very best– evoking such powerful emotions through a few imperative sentences. Her references to color remind one of the previously stated ‘Dear John’ and of course the chorus of ‘Red.’ A powerful storyteller, Swift even parallels moments from her sophomore album's title track "Fearless" ("I wanna ask you to dance right there in the middle of the parking lot" / "What started in beautiful rooms ends with meetings in parking lots") Swift's incredible writing ability once again comes to the forefront in 'folklore' after a trio of albums filled with clever yet overly simplistic one liners. This track additionally takes a leg up on Lover’s ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’ not only lyrically, but also in a stronger, yet oddly more believable metaphor.
This ballad track tells the most comprehensive story of Swift’s current relationship. The pluckiness of the guitar seems to mimic the motif of the ‘invisible string’ that Swift references throughout the song. Additionally, Swift’s vocal runs add to the mystical feeling of a successful love. However, her references to ‘green’ and ‘teal’ seems like a less impressive version of ‘Red’ ’s chorus. However, the second verse is much more thoughtful. Additionally, while Swift is clearly trying to achieve a certain tone, this song is fairly weak vocally as she attempts to sing deeper than her natural ability.
This song is simply a better version of Reputation’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do.’ As Swift moved away from her desire to appeal to pop sound, she achieved a much better song lyrically. Further, this song humanizes Swift's frustration with media coverage and petty Twitter fights. With much deeper emotion, this track also evokes much more sympathy and anger toward the sexism that exists in the music industry than Lover’s ‘The Man.’ The soft piano allows one to focus on the well-constructed lyrics.
The piano and beautiful back up vocals by Swift add to the dreamy atmosphere of this song. This song is rather ignorable if you don’t step back and really listen (similar to 1989’s ‘This Love’). Swift proves her singing ability on this track, while also again throwing in her unbelievable talent for lyric writing– pulling imagery from war and the current pandemic to write a heartbreaking track. This song will be a clear indicator of the times 'folklore' was born into.
This is arguably one of Swift’s best songs of her career. Her vocals are near perfection– clear and raspy, mixing perfectly with the harmonica instrumentals. Her expletives sound the most natural in this track as well, while in previous songs it seemed as though Swift hesitated a bit before saying them. Each lyric comes out smoothly and well-timed. While objectively this song has a lot going on instrumentally, it is a perfect callback to Swift’s self titled debut album. It is unknown what the story of this track is truly referencing, but it seems to evoke the same powerful resolution as Swift’s ‘Love Story’ (the similarities between “I showed up to your party” and “Knelt to the ground and pulled out a ring and said..” are undeniable). Further, both songs make references to a ‘garden.’ Whatever the story behind it, Betty is a classic Taylor Swift song with an unexpected twist: either told from the perspective of a teenage boy, or a queer girl. This song is both nostalgic and exemplifies Swift's growth (and is a much more genuine queer anthem than Lover’s ‘You Need to Calm Down.’)
Again, Swift seems to perfect a previous song with this track. ‘Peace’ seems to be a more genuine version of Lover’s ‘The Archer.’ Like ‘mad woman’ the simplicity of the beat seems to draw attention to the lyrics, and the lack of repetition draws even more focus to them. Swift seems to talk in a train of thought once more, but this time directly to a lover. This song is fairly skippable with the boring intro, however lyrically Swift rises.
A heartbreaking note to go out on, ‘hoax’ seems to be an anxious break up song (similar to Lover’s ‘Cornelia Street’). However, the pain in the sound leads one to wonder if Swift really is grieving the loss of her longtime boyfriend. With clear references to the ‘blue’ motif that coincides with Joe Alwyn, ‘Hoax’ seems to say he has beaten her at her own game, and she does not care. This is most uncharacteristic of Swift, which makes it a perfect outro for one of her most unexpected albums.
‘Folklore’ is simply incredible. While her nearly six year run of cheap hits seemed to be what Swift would be after forever, ‘folklore’ proves that her passion for storytelling is still very much alive. Despite her never ending attachment to high school romance, her maturity finally shows through her lyrics and instrumentals. Unlike previous albums, Swift takes the objective narrator role most expertly in 'folklore'. While her album themes have remained somewhat consistent throughout her career, this album shifts her perspective. Further, Swift may have proven that she is very good at being a celebrity and a performer with her last three albums, but ‘folklore’ seems to be a promise that she hasn’t forgotten how to write a good love song, either.
Olivia Evans is a Low Caliber co-founder. She is currently studying journalism and film. You can find her trying to be artsy on her low quality Instagram @oliviaevans13