Although Taylor Swift has released three massive albums since going full-on “pop” and conquering stadiums with 2014’s Grammy-winning 1989, she has tucked in quieter moments to counterbalance the radio-ready maximalism, often at the end of her full-lengths: think the swooning soft rock of 1989’s “Clean,” or the post-party piano ballad “New Year’s Day” closing out Reputation. On last year’s Lover, those unadorned gems shone even brighter on the track list, with songs like “The Archer,” “It’s Nice To Have a Friend” and especially the title track offering heartfelt declarations alongside singles like “ME!” and “You Need To Calm Down.”
With the surprise announcement of Folklore, a new full-length that was conceived in relative secret (and largely by herself, during the coronavirus pandemic), Swift has, for the first time in her career, foregone the traditional album rollout and returned with a new album in less than a year. Along with frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff, Aaron Dessner of The National is heavily involved as a co-producer and co-writer, and Bon Iver is the only featured artist; the cover art, meanwhile, is a greyscale shot of Swift dwarfed by the woods around her. Does this unexpected project represent a return to Swift’s singer-songwriter roots — albeit one refracted through an indie-rock prism rather than her country beginnings — and a chance for the quieter parts of her recent albums to take center stage?
Yes and no: Folklore is indeed a deviation from the top 40 trajectory that Swift set herself upon six years ago, but there is absolutely nothing quiet about it. Swift presents her new album as a songwriting tour de force, demonstrating the scope and depth of her artistic skill as she ruminates on the passage of time, grasps at fleeting memories and refuses to mince words or sugarcoat a sour reality, often while operating above intricate orchestral arrangements.
Instead of simply stripping down her music, Swift builds up these songs with a totally different approach than we’re used to, using the instrumental equilibrium as a springboard to intermingle a wider range of themes in her storytelling. Do not mistake Folklore as a companion piece to Lover or a collection of outtakes, given its quick turnaround; there are bold, lofty ideas all over these songs, and Swift is ready to scale them.
“Our coming of age has come and gone,” Swift sings on “Peace,” a line that peels back a single relationship but also reflects her perspective on the first album she’s released since turning thirty. Simplistic love is now viewed in the past tense — the back-to-back nostalgia trips of “Seven” and “August,” two gorgeously rendered snapshots of simpler times — with a more grown-up, complex version of affection dominating the present.
On “Exile,” her searing duet with Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon, their points of view refuse to align and the blame for separation cannot be settled; on “This Is Me Trying,” an organ yawns as Swift tries to break through a malaise. The problems are often lived-in, the relationships are tangled and Swift is more realistic about human nature than ever before. Multiple songs reference romantic meetings in parking lots, the starry-eyed tales of her “Love Story” days long gone.
Most artists would not possess the gumption to sell such a transition, but Swift has been sharing her reality with us for over a decade, so the darkest moments of Folklore never ring hollow. And when the light pours in, the vision is breathtaking: “Invisible String” is one of the flat-out greatest songs Swift has ever written, a sensational love story centered on the happy accidents that will get you choked up if you let them.
A project created in isolation, Folklore finds Swift pouring every inch of her current psyche, amidst an imperfect reality, into her songwriting. We’re fortunate that she decided to share it with us, too.