Republic Records · July 24th, 2020
Ahead of the release of Taylor Swift’s tenth studio album Midnights, Bhargavi Ramamurthy reviews folklore, a turning point in the artist’s career that WRBB hadn’t previously covered.
folklore is American artist Taylor Swift’s eight studio album. Released by surprise in July of 2020, folklore explores themes of reflection, betrayal, and storytelling over the course of 16 albums — 17 if one is listening to the deluxe version. Through these songs, Swift paints a complex, haunting narrative centering around either her own past, family members’ past, or the past of fictional characters that she has constructed in these songs.
Swift starts off with reflection early in the album, starting with her first track, “the 1.” In “the 1,” Swift looks on a past relationship and reminisces about how lovely it would have been if things had worked out between “her” and the individual for whom the song is about. Continuing into themes of reflection and betrayal occur with the title’s second track, “cardigan”. With “cardigan”, Swift introduces the infamous folklore love triangle that appears in two other songs throughout the album—the story of a complex relationship between three teenagers: Betty, James, and a girl Swift refers to as “Augustine”. In “cardigan”, told from Betty’s point of view, she reminisces on her past relationship with James while also diving into feelings of betrayal when she learned he had cheated on her with Augustine. “Cardigan” is particularly interesting due to Swift’s use of double meanings in the lyrics. She sings “and when I felt like I was an old cardigan / under someone’s bed / you put me on and said I was your favorite.” “Put me on” is used to refer literally to the acting of putting on clothes, but is also a slang term for when someone is lying. This double meaning adds to Betty’s feelings regarding James’s treatment of her and their relationship. Swift also dives into historical characters with the third track on the album, “the last great american dynasty.” Here, she incorporates the very concept of folklore by telling the story of the woman whose house Swift now owns, Rebekah Harkness, by telling the story of this shunned, strange woman. Swift connects Rebekah’s ostracization of society to her own life and the media scrutiny she has received as well.
This is an essential aspect of what makes folklore such a phenomenal album: Swift creates a cohesive body of work that feels like it was meant to be listened to as a whole. Concepts of youth and childhood that are introduced in “cardigan” echo in “seven” and “betty,” with lyrics such as “when you are young they assume you know nothing” and “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything but I know I miss you,” creating a very tight narrative for the listener to enjoy. Similarly, the misogyny that Swift touches on in “the last great american dynasty” is further explored in “mad woman”, “my tears ricochet”, and “hoax”, songs in which she describes her own treatment by the music industry and the battle over the rights to her masters. Swift’s focus on her own life and family history in songs such as “invisible string”, “epiphany”, and “peace” further prove how interwoven the various themes of folklore are with one another.
Beyond her stunning lyricism and the complex themes that emphasize one another, folklore explores Swift’s lower register and was recorded in the early 2020 pandemic, meaning much of the production and backing of the songs is rather muted. It is Swift’s first real exploration into the arena of indie music, and it is executed phenomenally so. The album is deserving of five stars because it pulls off what an album should do well: it transports you to another time entirely while also grounding you in the experience of listening to it. Swift’s use of piano and guitar is masterful, while the addition of the harmonica in “betty” gives a rather whimsical touch to the song—a clever choice given that the song is told from the point of view of a teenage boy. These subtle production elements enhance the songs greatly, improving them beyond Swift’s direct impact as well.
Essentially, folklore is a masterfully executed album in every possible way. While Swift has been a wildly popular artist for an usually long time in the music industry, folklore was the album that cemented her talent for many and brought a significant amount of fans to her (or brought them back) and for good reason: it is by far her best, most cohesive, and complex work to date.