Ever since Taylor Swift released her first album in 2006, she has claimed her songs are nothing more than tools to tell her stories. However, for years other narratives have pushed conversations about her songwriting to the background: the exes, the genre changes, her reputation. Unmarred by these distractions, “Folklore” is free to explore a vast array of settings and characters like a sonical storybook, earning itself the distinction of being Swift’s best album yet.
The most impressive tale in the tracklist is a trio of songs dubbed, by Swift herself, “the teenage love triangle.” Made up of three songs that could each dethrone the legendary “All Too Well” from its hallowed position atop Swift’s discography, the triptych traces the fallout of summer romances between three seventeen-year-olds named Betty, August and James. Swift manages to connect the three songs (and much of the album) through a combination of classic 'Swiftian' tactics like naming articles of clothing and building thematic webs.
“Cardigan” tells Betty’s side of the story as she uses the wisdom hindsight provides to reminisce about how James left her for August. Swift subverts that cliche with a simple two-liner: “When you are young, they assume you know nothing / But I knew you.” By the time “Cardigan” ascends to its third verse (easily Swift’s best to date, by the way), Betty is ready to declare, “I knew everything when I was young.”
The second song in the triangle, “August,” tells the perspective of the other girl, left unnamed by Swift but nicknamed August by Swifties. A collaboration with long-time Swift producer Jack Antonoff, “August” gives off the nostalgic 80s abandoned-mall-with-a-huge-parking-lot vibes for which Antonoff has gained notoriety. It’s the closest “Folklore” gets to pop and probably Antonoff’s best work to date.
The final third comes in track fourteen, “Betty.” Here, backed by a rootsy harmonica, Taylor assumes the perspective of an apologetic James. As he arrives on Betty’s doorstep, Swift throws in one of the most effective key changes since “Love Story.” Swift’s skilled manipulation of perspective, however, marks her growth as a writer since that 2008 hit; compare the wise Betty in “Cardigan” to the hapless James, who has to resort to excuses of “I'm only seventeen, I don't know anything.”
Refusing to be pinned into a corner, “Folklore” doesn’t limit itself to love songs. “The Last Great American Dynasty” calypsos its way through the story of Rebekah Harkness: widow, heiress of the Standard Oil Fortune and embodiment of “well-behaved women seldom make history." Swift identifies with Harkness’s antics, and with her trademark wit she ties a neat bow on their connection by revealing that Harkness once inhabited her Rhode Island home.
Again, Swift links the past to the present on “Epiphany.” Suited more for a cathedral than the stadiums Swift regularly sells out, “Epiphany” hauntingly recounts the experiences of Swift’s grandfather in World War II, but in the second half, it cleverly pivots to the fight against COVID-19. “Epiphany” is the center of a four-song scattering that uses war as a metaphor — although the others, especially the vulnerable “Peace,” use it as a stand-in for relationships.
The most supernatural story in “Folklore” is found in “My Tears Ricochet,” where Swift uses a ghost haunting a past enemy at her own funeral as a metaphor for her ongoing conflict with her old record label. Supported by a beautifully building Antonoff production, Swift wields her penmanship to great effect, cramming thousands of unbelievable two-liners into the four minute runtime. The best of these comes in the final chorus: “I didn't have it in myself to go with grace / And so the battleships will sink beneath the waves.” “My Tears Ricochet” is the best example of Swift’s songwriting on a microscopic, line-by-line level, in contrast to the macroscopic genius seen elsewhere in “Folklore.”
“Folklore” doesn’t entirely abandon Swift’s penchant for autobiography. In fact, “Invisible String,” (a better love song than just about anything from last year’s “Lover”) proves Swift knows her own lore just as well as her biggest fans. By filling the song with references to her own life and discography, Swift reaps huge payoffs by grounding “Invisible String” and making its exploration of fate feel real.
However, despite the best efforts of “Invisible String,” “Folklore” is a deeply hopeless album. In the world of “Folklore,” wars are lost, every movie ending is that one scene from “La La Land” and love triangles leave everyone heartbroken. Never before has a Swift album been so bleak; even “Red,” her oft-proclaimed heartbreak record, ends with the rosy “Begin Again.”
On “Folklore,” Swift closes with the most depressing song in her discography, “Hoax.” “Stood on the cliffside screaming, ’Give me a reason’ / Your faithless love's the only hoax I believe in,” she sighs in the chorus, one of several moments in the album where Swift evokes suicidal imagery. The result is a profoundly cathartic closing to her best album yet.
Get The Dirt
Subscribe to our weekly email about what's trending at Duke