Review: With Folklore, Taylor Swift Mines Pathos from a Widening Worldview

The album anticipates questions surrounding the singer’s genre bona fides and leans into each contradiction.

Taylor Swift, Folklore
Photo: Beth Garrabrant

Country and roots music are too often used as shorthand for “serious” artistry, a notion steeped in matters of race and rockist authenticity fetishes. The implication that pop music is an inherently lesser art form has been the focus of the discourse around albums by Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus in recent years. Taylor Swift’s Folklore has already been subject to similar—and perhaps similarly misguided—scrutiny. That Swift has enlisted Aaron Dessner of the highly regarded indie-rock band the National as both a songwriting and producing partner—in addition to her frequent pop collaborator Jack Antonoff—and has embraced a grayscale, rustic visual aesthetic for the project has led many to declare the album a credibility maneuver or act of rebranding.

What makes Folklore such a compelling album, then, are the countless ways in which Swift, the savviest and most acutely self-conscious artist of her generation, anticipates questions surrounding her genre bona fides and leans into each apparent contradiction. She invites this degree of “What does it mean?” discursive handwringing because, on some level, it frees her to make the music she wants to make at any given moment. Folklore is neither a culmination of Swift’s career to date nor a pivot in a new direction. She’s doing exactly what she’s always done: offering a collection of incisive, often provocative songs that incorporate authentic, first-person details and leaving others to argue over specific genre signifiers.

Song for song, Folklore finds Swift at a new peak in her command of language. While tracks like “Cardigan” and “Invisible Strings” hinge on protracted metaphors, “Mad Woman” and “Peace” are blunt and plainspoken. In every instance, what’s noteworthy is Swift’s precision in communicating her exact intent. “I can change everything about me to fit in,” she sighs on “Mirrorball,” a sentiment that’s emblematic of her ability to bait autobiographical readings while also actively subverting them. If she’s offering a comment on her own desire to keep up with next-gen pop stars like Billie Eilish, then the obvious follow-up question is why nothing on Folklore sounds like a viable Top 40 single. Swift’s answer comes in the song’s final stanza, a marvel of vulnerability: “I’m still trying everything/To keep you looking at me.”

In other words, Swift’s at a point in her career where she knows chart success is incidental to broad cultural impact, and she has the cachet to sacrifice the former for the sake of the latter. “All Too Well,” from 2012’s Red, has rightfully become one of her signature songs despite not ever having been released as a single, and that same fate seems likely for many of the tracks here. Every song on Folklore boasts at least one couplet or stanza that’s simply extraordinary for its command of language, narrative voice, empathy, or some combination thereof.

The standout “Seven” first presents itself as a wistful remembrance of childhood before revealing the complexities of what we lose as we age: “Picture me in the weeds/Before I learned civility/I used to scream ferociously/Whenever I wanted.” The song also presents a queer text within Swift’s songwriting for the first time, which broadens the narrative voices she’s employed over the course of her career. “Illicit Affairs” builds to what seems like it will be one of the singer’s trademark middle-eight tone shifts, only to end abruptly without resolving into another chorus, enhancing the sense of finality in her dressing-down of a former lover. Rather than pulling her punches by repeating a catchy refrain or hook, she lets some of her bitterest lines linger, and it’s one of the album’s most impactful moments. Later, she sings from the POV of the rejected party on “This Is Me Trying” to devastating effect: “You told me all of my cages were mental/So I got wasted like all my potential.” The track finds Swift giving credence to the other person’s view of her, making for an even more believable narrator.

Swift’s early albums were hamstrung by her insistence that hers was the only story to be told—that, essentially, she was the protagonist in everyone else’s autobiography, and not just in her own. Folklore’s shifting perspectives—an homage to heiress Rebekah Harkness on “The Last Great American Dynasty,” the queer through line in the love triangle of “Cardigan,” “August,” and “Betty”—highlight how Swift’s widening worldview has deepened her skills as a songwriter. And even if none of these tracks sound like a “hit,” “Invisible String” and “This Is Me Trying” still demonstrate Swift’s masterful grasp of song structure. Her use of repetition throughout the album is particularly effective: “The 1” invokes both “the greatest films of all time” and “the greatest loves of all time” as sources of regret, while each stanza on “Invisible String” begins with a line that uses passive voice to create a narrative remove.

That Swift employs her long-established songwriting tropes in novel ways is truly the most significant development on Folklore, rather than her choices of collaborators or whether the album scans as pop or alternative or electro-folk. She’s mined this type of melancholy tone before, but never for the full length of an album and certainly never with such a range of perspectives. It isn’t the weight of the subject matter alone that makes the album feel so vital—it’s the exemplary caliber of her writing. She may sing of wasted potential, but Folklore finds Swift living up to all of the praise she earned for her songwriting earlier in career.

 Label: Republic  Release Date: July 24, 2020  Buy: Amazon

Jonathan Keefe

Jonathan Keefe's writing has also appeared in Country Universe and In Review Online.

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