Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’ is an alternative tour-de-force

Taylor Swift’s eighth studio album, written entirely in quarantine, proves to be one of her best works.

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"Taylor Swift" / o_Ozzzzk / CC BY-NC 2.0.

A young Taylor Swift poses for the camera. Swift parallels her earlier works on “folklore.”

Taylor Swift’s eighth studio album, “folklore” was released on Friday, July 24, and she has the whole world talking. Rather than choosing a traditional album roll-out, Swift decided to announce the album only a day before its release, a wise choice for an already established career. My anticipation for the album was consistently high throughout the day as I admired the black-and-white cover and speculated the meanings behind each of the track titles.

The moment it dropped, I slipped in my earbuds and closed my eyes as the gentle piano of the opening track, “the 1,” began to play. This album, more so than Swift’s other works, is transportive: I envisioned myself looking through a car window at the snow outside — and it’s summertime in California. Her lyrics on this album are easily her best since 2013’s “Red.” After three major pop releases for Swift, the folksy elements of this album provide a breath of fresh air. While I felt like Swift’s career was beginning to slow down with last year’s “Lover,” “folklore” imbues her discography with new life as she experiments with sound, release structure, and lyrics. 

The tracklist titles themselves tell of her genius: track one is called “the 1,” track seven “seven” and track eight “august” — the eighth month of the year. 

It’s no surprise to anyone that Swift is a versatile artist: She transitioned from country to electropop to EDM in the span of three albums. Now, she delves into a new genre — alternative rock with an indie aesthetic. This is the album Swifties have been waiting for since 2013. 

One of the most discussed songs on the album is “betty.” The song, perhaps intentionally vague, can either be interpreted as a sapphic confession of love, a character study written through the point-of-view of a certain “James,” or a genius foil by switching the intended audience during the bridge. The first theory points to the fact that Swift is named after James Taylor, and the “James,” who she describes as being in a relationship with Betty could be herself. Ultimately, this song proves once again that Swift is a master of storytelling and the key-change in the final chorus brings on a rush of emotions. 

I was walking home on broken cobblestones / Just thinking of you when she pulled up like / A figment of my worst intentions / She said James, get in, let’s drive’” Swift sings. 

As to the debate regarding its meaning, Swift clarified the inspiration behind the story on a livechat. 

“There’s a collection of three songs I refer to as The Teenage Love Triangle. These three songs explore a love triangle from all three people’s perspectives at different times in their lives,” she said. The other two songs in this trilogy include “cardigan” and “august.” 

Whereas “betty” harkens back to earlier Swift songs like “Fifteen” and “Love Song,” the collaboration with Bon Iver, “exile” parallels “The Last Time” from “Red.” 

“I think I’ve seen this film before, and I didn’t like the ending,” Iver croons. 

On “mad woman,” Swift challenges the misogynistic rhetoric that criticizes women for expressing emotion. 

What a shame she went mad / No one likes a mad woman / You made her like that,” she sings. 

Swift’s relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn may be at the heart of the album, but she grounds the context of this relationship with her past loves. 

“When they are young, they assume you know nothing,” she sings on track two, “cardigan.” 

It may be too early to tell, but “folklore” is undoubtedly one of Swift’s strongest albums and a serious contender for album of the year. The parallels between the tracks — “there goes the maddest woman you’d ever seen” in “the last great american dynasty” referencing “mad woman” and “standing in your cardigan” in “Betty” pointing at “cardigan” — demonstrate that, after all these years, Swift’s penchant for brilliant lyrics and immersive narratives has not been lost. 

And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?” she ponders on “my tears ricochet.” She plays off the metaphor in the title as the vocals bounce off of each other like bullets. “Cursing my name, wishing I stayed / Look at how my tears ricochet.”

It’s clear, that, despite what she says, the old Swift is not dead at all, but rather very much alive. 

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