Review: Taylor Swift stuns with the mature melancholy of ‘folklore’

by Shera Bhala | 7/31/20 2:00am

Just when I thought Taylor Swift had surpassed every semblance of an expectation, she proved to be even more of a superwoman. The release of her eighth album, “folklore,” on July 24th comes only 11 months after the cheerful and flowery “Lover.” Written and recorded entirely in quarantine, “folklore” is a testament to the singer’s creativity as a musical powerhouse. “Folklore” stuns with its ethereal beauty and maturity, expressed through intelligent lyrics and gentle, haunting melodies. 

Perhaps a sentiment with which others can connect is the feeling of growing up alongside Swift. When I was in middle school, I looked up to the curly-haired, country-pop princess. I belted out the words to “Teardrops On My Guitar” and “Should’ve Said No” and re-watched the music videos to “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me” 10 times over. I listened to her stories of heartbreak in “Red,” admiring the strength that Swift harnessed from past pain. In high school, I listened to “1989” and “reputation” on repeat as I spent hours working and painting in the studio. In college, “Lover” surprised me with its boppy enthusiasm, which I viewed as a childish expression of her love story with Joe Alwyn, and a regression to her earlier days. However, I was impressed with the delicate elegance of certain tracks, such as “Afterglow” and “The Archer.” And I certainly did not expect another album after “Lover” less than a year later. 

Given this admirable musical history, I had high hopes for “folklore.” I was antsy with excited anticipation all of last Thursday, especially given the sudden 16-hour notice for the album that Swift gave her fans over Instagram. When “folklore” dropped at midnight, I listened eagerly. I was moved by the album’s airy alt-pop ballads, which demonstrate a clear evolution from previous releases.

If you only listen to one song from “folklore,” listen to “exile.” It just might be the most breathtaking song she has ever made. “Exile” encapsulates all of the mature beauty that makes this album a success. The song features Bon Iver’s front man, Justin Vernon, who gave us “Skinny Love” and other indie folk tunes. The melody is slow, tragic and exquisite. Their voices are strong and harmonious with each other and the piano. “Exile” reflects on a toxic past relationship, as Swift and Vernon sing “I think I’ve seen this film before / So I’m leaving out the side door.” “Exile” is an evolution from the tone of Swift’s former breakup songs. Like “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Bad Blood,” “exile” communicates the message of getting over past heartbreak, but from a different perspective, one that sprouted from Swift’s genuine introspection and newfound happiness.

“Cardigan” presents another lovely, murky tune that pairs with a whimsically dark music video. The song mourns the loss of a lover, comparing the relationship to “Peter losing Wendy” from “Peter Pan.” Most of these songs were co-written and produced with The National’s Aaron Dessner (along with Jack Antonoff, as per usual), whose indie folk influence is evident. The cloudy, atmospheric sounds and somber piano are in stark contrast to the saccharine pop of “Red” and “1989,” and bring a solemn depth to “folklore.”

“The last great american dynasty” continues with this folksy sound, and contains a fascinating story that contributes to the album’s intelligence. The song is a musical tribute to Rebekah Harkness, the heiress who once lived in Swift’s Rhode Island mansion. A female Jay Gatsby, Harkness was criticized for hosting extravagant parties after divorcing her husband, the heir to Standard Oil. Swift sings “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen / She had a marvelous time ruining everything.” Harkness is a classic Swiftian heroine, an intrepid woman who refuses to be caged by the society that surrounds her. The end of the song sees a change in pronouns, from “she” to “I,” indicating the parallels Swift draws between her and the 1950s socialite. “The last great american dynasty,” like many other songs on the album, is tragic, but not devastating, and light, but not upbeat. 

Like “the last great american dynasty,” “epiphany” shows Swift’s talent as a storyteller. “Epiphany” draws from her grandfather’s experience in the military, and parallels war with the COVID-19 pandemic. In a haunting voice, Swift sings “Something med school did not cover / Someone’s daughter, someone’s mother / Holds your hand through plastic now.” This seems to be her paying tribute to the frontline workers battling the pandemic. Telling another story, “invisible string” shares a tale of modern love, teeming with literary references from Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” 

A notable aspect of “folklore” is the occasional swear word in some of the songs, a rarity for Swift. Five out of the 16 songs on the album are labeled as explicit. These tracks are “the 1,” “the last great american dynasty,” “mad woman,” “betty” and “peace.” However, the one or two explicit words in each of these songs does not change the hazy, gentle nature of the music. If any of her songs included swear language, I would have expected them to be on “reputation” and not “folklore,” so the words and sound are a bit disjointed in that sense. 

If you asked me what my favorite album is, I would still say “reputation” (I know that’s a hot take with some Swift fans who swear by albums from her earlier days of fame). But “folklore” is a very close second. My reasoning is that “reputation,” as a whole, is still the most creatively intelligent and bold. There is a certain emotional rawness that accompanies Swift’s transformation from innocent country-pop princess to an edgy, smart and mature queen who has been burned and has grown exponentially from it. “Reputation” is daring. Swift created the music that was least expected of her, and by doing that, she defined herself with a new confidence and strength that defied oppressive and misogynistic pressure. Further, “reputation” has very few duds on it and a plethora of gems, such as “King of My Heart,” “Dress” and “Call It What You Want.”

“Folklore” has more duds than “reputation,” but still maintains several gems. There are the eloquent beauties that make me admire the album, for instance, “the last great american dynasty,” “exile” and “august.” A song about a forbidden love, “august” is ideal to listen to on a calm summer day by the water. But, some songs are too similar and redundant, like “my tears ricochet” and “mirrorball.” 

To revisit the idea of growing up in parallel with Swift and her music, “folklore” is the mature rumination on life and love that I think many twenty-somethings will find solace in, and perhaps a light amidst the pandemic. Within the first three days of its release, “folklore” has already surpassed the biggest week of 2020 for any album, cementing Swift’s musical legend status. The most impressive takeaway from Swift is her ability to transform and grow, from her country roots to hyper-pop to the subdued beauty of “folklore.” 

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