On Thursday, Taylor Swift revealed she would release a surprise 16-track studio album titled “Folklore.” The eighth in her catalog, it comes complete with black-and-white photographs and tracklist. Swift explained she had penned and recorded new songs during quarantine. She wrote: “Before this year, I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed.”
Even without promotional fanfare, Swift’s new intentions are strikingly clear: The National’s Aaron Dessner is credited on 11 of the 16 tracks! Five of the songs carry explicit-language warnings! Bon Iver appears!
But many Taylor-isms have stayed the same: Longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff remains. Track titles are stylistically lower-case, melodramatic, and looming: “epiphany,” “my tears ricochet,” “this is me trying.”
Swift has embraced productivity during quarantine — a constant cognitive battle so many Americans are plagued with at the moment. Do we need to reassess our priorities or take this time — if we are lucky enough to — as a gift, an opportunity to grow and evolve? Swift has done both. She writes: “In isolation my imagination has run wild and this album is the result. I’ve told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve. Now it’s up to you to pass them down.”
Swift’s accessible intimacy is part of what makes her so ubiquitous. Her music is so deeply personal because her personal life has forever been a part of her celebrity. At first, not by her own accord — many audiences were obsessed with her wide-eyed wonder before judging her for growing comfortable in it. But now the years of Swift meticulously attempting to craft her own narrative through her albums (“Reputation,” “1989”) have given way to her casually relaxing control and letting stories tell themselves, lightly in “Lover” and now full-force on “Folklore.”
As the title suggests, “Folklore” blends fiction with real life. Swift’s favorite tropes are still here: era escapism in “The Last Great American Dynasty,” hazy teenage flashback in “Betty,” plucky predestined romance of “Invisible String.” There’s a familiar heartache and yearning in these new characters’ songs, but colored through the lens of someone who knows better. “Folklore” is rarely autobiographical, but as on 2019′s “Lover,” Swift’s references have evolved. Grand gestures feel grounded in reality. Breakups are less about being burned and more about the acceptance of them being pushed into the subconscious. And love is less of an all-or-nothing whirlwind than a desire for the quiet drift into comfortable coexistence.
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Dessner make their presence known through melancholy yodels and poignant, whirling orchestral arrangements, an unexpectedly robust pairing with Antonoff’s skipping beats and soaring synths. Swift continues to perfect her blend of sophisticated speak-sing with firm, flourishing vocals that are nice to revisit when stripped down on “Illicit Affairs” and “Peace.” The simultaneously sad and sunny influences of the women of Gen Z’s indie folk are identifiable in a sequential trio: “Mirrorball,” “Seven,” and “August,” each stunning and complex, as Swift drifts down the alt-Nashville path she may have found years ago had she not pivoted to pop.
On the album’s lead single, “Cardigan,” Swift sings, “And when I felt like I was an old cardigan under someone’s bed/ You put me on and said I was your favorite.” For “Folklore,” she indulges the pleasure of looking back without regressing. Her newest trick — in isolation and in art — is making the most of what she already has. And for many of us, right now, it’s just what we need.