This year has come with many twists and turns, perhaps few as bizarre as a surprise folksy Taylor Swift album announced the day of its release.
Swift said “in isolation, [her] mind has run wild” and her latest studio album, “folklore,” is the result. She described the album as her way of “escaping into fantasy, history, and memory.”
Released July 24, “folklore” provides a sharp sonic shift for Swift, greatly contrasting the light, poppy sound of 2019’s “Lover.” With a subdued, minimalistic sound, “folklore” is most reminiscent of Swift’s moodier “Red” (2012) tracks, as well as 2012’s “Safe and Sound” off of “The Hunger Games” soundtrack.
The 16-track album includes a feature with Bon Iver and leads with a lyrical focus, straying from Swift’s last three releases’ melodic focus. The album explores themes of sexism, isolation, romantic longing and more.
“folklore” is a solid return to form for Swift after the misfire of “Lover.” Her confident, breathy vocals and the ethereal production provided by Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff create an atmospheric, introspective album of maturity and grace.
Although headed by pseudo-lead single “cardigan,” Swift opted out of a traditional album cycle for the first time in her career. Thankfully, those who hear “cardigan” as a first impression will be greeted to a moody, sensual track that sounds like an evolution of Swift’s classic tearjerkers. The 180 from “ME!,” the panned travesty of a lead single off of “Lover,” is a welcome relief.
Swift is right in her element in “folklore,” exposing vulnerability with a sense of melancholy. Whereas she seemed to have her walls up on “Lover,” “folklore” shows an assured authenticity not seen since “Red.” Not trying so hard to be blissfully relatable, Swift manages to deliver a truly striking record.
The songs are emulant of a night hike, complimented by the black and white album cover depicting Swift in a forest. The downtempo production works well and features many standout moments, including the eerie opening of “my tears ricochet.”
Production standouts include the aforementioned “my tears ricochet” and the bittersweet “august.” “august” wonderfully captures the feeling of longing with its wistful production mixed with Swift’s emotional vocals.
Dreamy “mirrorball” is a standout track with its smooth, vocally layered production. Throughout the track, Swift uses a mirrorball to represent people’s multi-faceted tendencies. The track opens and closes with the lyrics “I’m a mirrorball / I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight” in a poignantly satisfying circle representing the never-ending spinning of a mirrorball.
Swift utilizes the album’s folk theme to place an emphasis on lyrical storytelling which gives each track repeatability. The revealing lyrics might take many listens to soak in.
“betty” serves as a throwback to Swift’s more unabashed country days. The song tells the story of a 17-year old girl struggling with her complicated romantic friendship with a girl named Betty. The themes take Swift right back to the high school days of her second studio album, “Fearless,” yet with a mature update — not just because she curses on the track.
The playful lyrics “You heard the rumors from Inez / You can’t believe a word she says / Most times, but this time it was true” paint a vivid picture of the character’s school life in a mere 10 seconds.
Bon Iver and Swift’s duet “exile” provides a gutpunch with the dueling lyrics and eargasmic harmonies. The contrast of Bon Iver’s lines “I think I’ve seen this film before / And I didn’t like the ending / You’re not my homeland anymore / So what am I defendin’ now?” with Swift’s “I think I’ve seen this film before / And I didn’t like the ending / I’m not your problem anymore / So who am I offending now?” is a lyrical strongpoint of the album.
“mad woman” is an evolved approach on addressing sexism that makes Swift’s “The Man,” off “Lover,” pale in vapidity in comparison.
The lyrics “And you’ll poke that bear till her claws come out / And you find something to wrap your noose around” offers brutal insight into the complicated dichotomy of the way women are ridiculed.
Dessner’s haunting production of “mad woman” elevates the track. Swift’s heart wrenching lyrics cut like a knife with the smokey, piano-backed instrumental. The track is both a production and lyrical highlight of “folklore.” How Swift could release “The Man” in 2019 with the depth of a koi pond only to turn around 11 months later with the utterly triumphant “mad woman” is quite the mystery.
The album’s minimalist production rarely feels monotone. While tracks such as “this is me trying” and “peace” don’t especially stand out, they’re more average than offensive.
“Folklore” is the album Swift has been building up to her entire career. Self-assured, lyrically packed and immensely evocative, “folklore” represents the artist’s musical genius.
Swift asked “Are we out of the woods yet?” in 2014’s “1989” but with “folklore,” she has firmly placed herself in the woods with no rush to escape.
“Folklore” is available to stream on all streaming services. There are eight special edition digital and vinyl copies, each with unique covers, as well as a bonus track, “the lakes,” on the Target physical edition.