I Am Not Ok. I may even need to calm down.
Shocking though it may be to people who are aware of any of the other reviews I’ve written, I like some mainstream pop music. Perhaps maybe even more than like.
Basically, I’m a massive fan of Taylor Swift.
So, when she announces an album out of the blue with the release set for less than 24 hours post-announcement, I slightly lose my mind.
Given the massive success of Lover, my expectations are immensely high. The miasma of Reputation seems to have well and truly passed, with Taylor back on form with stadium pop hits that go much deeper than the usual radio fare. Of course, this doesn’t mean I know what to expect going in. Miss Swift doesn’t rest on her laurels and repeat sounds, instead always pushing onwards, growing and evolving with a determination and intrigue few artists even come close to. With approximately 17 hours until release as I write this introductory passage, my expectations are only for excellence. I have no delusions that the modernist, polished vibe of Lover will continue, indeed every appearance seems to point otherwise. The name, folklore, coupled with a fae, black and white, cottagecore-inspired cover shot looks aimed strongly at the more earthy and mystical. The one hope I dare to have, born from a message from a friend, is that we will be transported back to the hidden heroes of Red, rawer and stripped back tracks such as ‘All Too Well’ and ‘Begin Again’.
I guess I’ll know in 17 hours.
This album is not what I’d hoped, in the best way possible. Stripped back, absolutely, but in no way harkening back to the old Taylor. Indeed, this may be the most un-Taylor Swift Taylor Swift record ever released. The classically pop approach has been slightly toned back, with more songs feeling free to exist in a more organic and open fashion. Some publications are even describing this as Taylor’s ‘indie album’, which I’m not so sure is the right term, but the sentiment certainly fits.
If those lowkey pop vibes are what you’re here for, ‘betty’ is where you need to look, and possibly already Gay Twitter’s favourite track on the album. It bears some of the most rousing acoustic guitar found across the record, twisted in the direction of country with a healthy dose of surprisingly non-grating harmonica. It even fills the summer bop™ role lyrically, meandering through parties, youth, and the intricacies of summer love. Only this time it’s not about Harry Styles or Tom Hiddleston or some other A-list celebrity type, but the mysterious titular Betty. While the track is meant to be told from the perspective of a ‘James’ there’s plenty of discourse as to how this is actually Ms Swift. Either way, the song is perhaps one of the top pop highlights of the album. Oh, and that key change. I am deceased.
Except, of course, there is a contender. Track 3, ‘the last great american dynasty’ is the story of Rebekah Harkness, once America’s wealthiest woman, patron of the arts, and ex-owner of one of Taylor’s house. To me, the tone is pure Speak Now. Rhythmically upbeat, dancing guitars mimicking the vocal melody, and just enough lyrical bite. Underneath the obvious storytelling, there’s also a clear reference to Taylor’s own story. The choruses shift from talking about Ms Harkness having a ‘marvellous time ruining everything’, to explicitly coming from Taylor’s own perspective, likely in reference to the venom of the Kimye feud. Yet, it doesn’t come across bitter or angry, just wistful. It’s an acknowledgement that the past is past, and all we can do is remember the good bits and try to move forwards. Of course, it helps that the song slaps.
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The album as a whole, however, is more introspective and sombre than those two tunes would suggest. The perfect example is, of course, track five – ‘my tears ricochet’. First, what a fantastic name for a song. It feels powerfully emotional and just a touch dangerous, and we’ve not even pressed play yet. As a reflection on her own funeral, the track is inherently melodramatic. The second half of the chorus “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” is a powerful contemplation of how we will be remembered when we are gone, and who will be there to memorialise us. Of course, we want to be known for the good, but there is a clear understanding that the bad will be recorded too, for we do not get to write our own stories. Frankly, it’s a humbling song.
Even more sombre is ‘epiphany’. This is the most current track of all, filled with barely veiled references to the current pandemic. The instrumentation is more a soundscape than anything else, filled with gently swelling strings and a lone piano, with barely anything resembling a rhythm section. The atmosphere is perfectly solemn, yet grand, looking to a way out past the times we are now in – “Only twenty minutes to sleep/But you dream of an epiphany”. The vocal approach serves to perfectly tie together the instrumentation and lyrics. Taylor perfectly straddles the line between ethereal and raw, a line I hadn’t even considered could exist before this. As an ode to the serious nature of current affairs, I can think of no better song.
This more mellow tone also makes its way into a more personal song in ‘this is me trying’. Slow and perhaps the most synth-laden track on folklore, it marks a unique point in Taylor’s discography. It’s yet another perspective on a failed relationship, but this time it’s not just her lover’s fault. Instead, it’s vulnerable, an admittance of personal responsibility the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time, maybe even since ‘Back To December’. “I just wanted you to know that this is me trying” is almost fearless in its recognition of her efforts failing in a relationship that Taylor admits throughout the song has been harmed by her own actions. It’s a level of maturity that’s honestly relieving to see from her songwriting, and if such self-awareness can continue through further albums they will inevitably end up more honest, relatable, and ultimately enduring.
While the just-covered tracks are more downbeat, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the whole album is two happy songs then a lot of misery. The summer love vibes are possibly nowhere more present than on ‘august’. The nostalgic yet fleeting nature of the summers of youth – “But I can see us lost in the memory/August slipped away into a moment in time” kicks off the chorus with the perfect hint of half-remembered summers, passing seemingly in the blink of an eye. Jack Antonoff’s touch is visible, with the themes of lost summer love and elements of structure and sound approach mirroring Lorde track ‘The Louvre’. When you look for it, it really is unmissable, but absolutely not a criticism. The contrast in sound between those two tracks summarises the general approach to this album – trying not to be the same polished radio pop as past albums, but built on such an entrenched foundation that can’t help but let those elements through. Only, unlike so many albums with a similar dichotomy between instinct and intention, it actually works.
I’ll leave you on that note before this turns into a full track-by-track. Overall, folklore is a refreshingly raw insight into the best and worst parts of Taylor Swift, the person, that can’t quite escape the pop foundations upon which her career rose in the 2010s, but in the best possible way for it to be embraced by myself and the market at large.
If you like an audio-visual experience, the video for the beautifully relatable ‘cardigan’ is below. Otherwise, the album is available to stream pretty much everywhere.
If you want to properly support artists, there is an absolute deluge of physical options available for the first week of release. They even come with a bonus track that’s unavailable online, ‘the lakes’. Personally, I’m going for vinyl option number four, but there are eight covers and colours, so really the choice is possibly even excessive (is that a possibility when it comes to vinyl?!?). I’ve only learnt about Beth Garrabrant from the Folklore press material, but wow her portfolio looks incredible. That’s more for the photography section though…
Images courtesy of Stoked PR.