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Review: 'folklore' is what Taylor Swift was meant to do

The singer's latest album is deeply personal and filled to the brim with emotion


“Brooding and dark with well-placed splashes of sunlight and sweet tea in the summer, 'folklore' is unlike anything Swift has previously released.” Illustration published on Sunday Aug. 2, 2020.

There are feelings and moods beyond any sort of expression in this world, a list of sentiments that simply cannot be communicated, no matter the medium. 

But as I sat alone in the darkness of my room, I heard Taylor Swift’s "folklore" cut that list down significantly. Swift reached deep down into herself for this album and left all the raw, bloody pieces out on the table for everyone to see and relate to.

From the very first line of the album, the blue-eyed superstar makes it clear that she’s “on some new s---,” reminiscent of the first track of her less-than-one-year-old offering "Lover," “I Forgot That You Existed.” Brooding and dark with well-placed splashes of sunlight and sweet tea in the summer, "folklore" is unlike anything Swift has previously released.

With extensive writing and producing help from Aaron Dessner of indie band the National, a heartbreaking duet with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and writing, producing and recording contributions from frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff, Swift dipped her toes into a sound and style completely outside of her usual work — with Antonoff helping to keep his and Swift’s signature pop punch.

Consistent between "folklore" and the rest of her discography is Swift’s clever lyricism and effortless storytelling. 

A teenage love triangle as old as time itself plays out from each party’s perspective in “cardigan,” “august” and “betty,” which, snuck between Swift’s familiar picked guitar and hypothetical chorus, is an announcement of Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’ third daughter’s name. But Swift tackles the classic story with a new and uncharacteristic maturity. 

In “cardigan” and “betty,” the young, lively and believable characters admit their lack of knowledge and life experience (“I’m only 17, I don’t know anything,” “When you are young, they assume you know nothing”) but are working through what they do know, (“I don’t know anything, but I know I miss you,” “But I knew you, dancing in your Levi’s”) which is the sting of being betrayed and the less-often acknowledged sting of hurting someone you truly care for. 

In “the last great american dynasty,” the singer tells the tale of a rebellious heiress and past occupant of Swift’s Rhode Island home: Rebekah Harkness. Harkness wreaks havoc on the delicate comfort of Westerly, Rhode Island’s township in Swift’s upbeat and sun-drenched retelling of a true story. “She had a marvelous time ruining everything,” she sings, providing Swifites a selfie caption for years to come.

Yet among these fictions and historical accounts, Swift strews some of her most personal lyrics and confessions in tracks like “exile.” The darkest song on the album both lyrically and musically, “exile” begins with a moody piano and Vernon’s bassy and velvety voice reaching deep to rattle the listener’s soul. With bitter acceptance, Vernon sings about being left for another and the vast loneliness that comes with seeing who you thought was your “homeland” with someone else. 

Swift responds with an equally tender verse recalling the issues in the relationship that the male protagonist seems to have selectively forgotten but not without pain of her own (“Those eyes add insult to injury”). The second half of the song is filled to the brim with emotion— powerful string swells, heartbreaking call-and-answers and cathartic belts from both Swift and Vernon. This song is simply beautiful in every way.

Equally as beautiful is the fifth track  — historically an emotionally heavy track on Swift's albums — “my tears ricochet.” Airy, dreamy vocals set the mood and the base for the song’s sound as Swift tells the story of a “tormentor” at his victim’s funeral. “Even on my worst day, did I deserve babe, all the hell you gave me?” the “fallen object of obsession,” (as Swift put it in an Instagram post) asks. The chorus of “my tears ricochet” is a seething challenge of someone now free of past abuse: “And if I’m dead to you why are you at the wake, cursing my name, wishing I’d stayed? Look at how my tears ricochet.” 

This song is deeply personal, given that it’s the only song on "folklore" that Swift received sole writing credit and the first song she wrote for the album. Impressive atmospheric belts in the emotional exorcism of a bridge showcase Swift’s splendid vocal abilities.

If Taylor Swift were to drop dead tomorrow, she would take with her the peace of knowing that she put every last thing on the line with her latest album. Given her past feud with Big Machine Records and, more specifically, Scooter Braun, it feels like Swift went out of her way to write whatever she wanted and release it on a whim.

To reinforce this idea, consider that in Swift’s 14-year-long career, she never once uttered anything close to an expletive in one of her songs, but "folklore" boasts that little gray “E” next to five tracks.

It’s hard not to feel intrusive listening to an album so personal and honest. This album is what Swift was made to do on this"folklore" planet. She showed us everything, laid out all the ugly pieces for us to pick through and hold close. "folklore" is everything anyone could ask for in a Taylor Swift album and more. 

We’ll be listening for decades.

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