The music career of pop sensation Taylor Swift has been one of the biggest of this generation to watch unfold. Starting off with a traditional country sound at 16-years-old, she quickly became a megastar in the genre, with classics such as “Love Story” and “You Belong With Me” becoming smash hits. Just as some thought she would start to lose steam as an artist, she crossed over into pop and managed to top herself commercially with her album,“1989”, which contained hits like “Shake it Off”, “Blank Space”, and “Bad Blood”. Now, on her surprise release album, “folklore”, Swift established herself as a genre chameleon once again, crossing into a unique alternative, indie-pop sound.
Swift worked with just Aaron Dessner of the alternative band, The National, and longtime pop collaborator Jack Antonoff for the lyrics and production, and only has one feature on standout track “Exile” with Bon Iver. Where her recent 2019 album, “Lover”, was a more traditional, upbeat pop album, “folklore” is mostly ballad-driven with incisive lyrics and lush soundscapes.
One of the more interesting elements of “folklore” is the non-autobiographical nature of it. Most of Swift’s albums focus very heavily on the personal including her relationships with lovers as well as her friends and family, and narratives drew by the public about her life. However, outside of a select few tracks, the majority of “folklore” is about characters and stories that Swift invented in her head. While a focus on the personal typically leads to more powerful lyricism, by removing herself from this narrative, she manages to tell stories that she had not explored in her music before.
Songwriting in general is where “folklore” truly shines. A trio of tracks, “cardigan”, “august” and “betty”, follow a linear narrative about the love triangle between three teenagers. Each song makes subtle allusions to one another, but each is also incredibly unique from one another. Her lead single “cardigan” sounds like one of Lana Del Rey’s more alternative songs at certain points while “august” is perhaps the most pop entry on the album and “betty” is a harmonica-driven country song. By tying these three songs directly together while making them incredibly unique, Swift truly exemplifies her talent. She can write beautiful songs across genres and deliver them excellently.
Outside of this trilogy, “folklore” explores a wide variety of thematic material. For example, her song “mirrorball” is a unique look at social anxiety and stands as one of Swift’s most relatable songs to those struggling with such issues. Similarly, “this is me trying” delves into mental health issues, although seemingly with more of a focus on depression. “exile” explores a toxic relationship falling apart. “the last great American dynasty” follows the life of Rebekkah Harkness, one of the wealthiest women in American history. “epiphany” looks at both combat deaths in the military as well as lives lost to COVID-19.
While this sort of thematic diversity can often cause an album to sound incohesive, the excellent work on the production manages to tie the album together into one cohesive project. Nothing in this production is necessarily unique to the alternative or indie music scenes, but it is a refreshing direction for Swift to take her previous pop format.
Through powerful storytelling emanating from every track and a lush production landscape, “folklore” stands as one of the most impressive albums Swift has ever released. It may not generate mega-hits like her country classic “Fearless” or pop classic “1989”, and may not have the incisive self-awareness of “Speak Now” or “Red”, but through its uniqueness and lyrical prowess, it stands as one of the best releases of the year thus far, and will likely be remembered as Swift’s magnum opus.