With 'folklore,' Taylor Swift Is Truly ‘On Some New Shit.' And We Like It.

Madison Vain
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Esquire

“I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit,” is how Taylor Swift opens her new surprise album folklore, and I’ll be damned if she isn’t exactly right. She is doing something brand new (for her) with her eighth record: there has been no warning, no disappointing advance single, no news hook, no personal rebranding, no hot feud or new romance to serve as the lens through which fans should view it. It is just the music, out of nowhere, at a time when we are stuck at home and ready to listen. Taylor may be on some new shit, but I am on my couch at 9pm Pacific time for the third Swift album in a row, refreshing Apple Music to get it hot and fresh.

Well, folklore is beautiful and soothing—as whispery and intimate as all those lowercase song titles and filtered photos suggest. It’s a short story collection for your bedside table in the house you won’t be leaving anytime soon; an album recorded during a lockdown when your productivity sputtered out after that dense loaf of sourdough you baked in March. folklore, whose credits include Swift's frequent cohort Jack Antonoff as well as, for the first time, Aaron Dessner of the National and Bon Iver, will make you feel several emotions, and I am here to tell you that at least three of them will be envy.

Let’s take it track by track together and pretend you’re not going to rush right forward to “betty,” shall we?

the 1

We begin with a sweet song of lost love. I am relieved to say that there is very little internet speculation as to the identity of the lover in question, but it’s possible that that’s because the album came out ten seconds ago. There is a line about “roaring Twenties, tossing pennies in the pool,” and while I am certain that the world’s Swiftologists will point us to a Great Gatsby party she has thrown in the past and analyze the guest list, for the moment, I’m just letting it wash over me. The subdued, piano-backed sound palette is similar to the next track…

cardigan

…and while there are a lot of great things about being in a relationship with a musician, it can occasionally shatter the magic. Here’s an example: just now, while I was listening to and thoroughly enjoying this song, my musician boyfriend walked through the room and said: “We’ve gone such a long way to arrive right back at that first Zero 7 album.” Harsh, but not unfair.

the last great american dynasty

Taylor gives you a fleshed-out Zillow report on her Rhode Island home, which once housed a Standard Oil heir and his divorcée second wife, who got even more eccentric after his death. Yes, of course she circles back around to herself, but you get a fun history lesson along the way, and if you’re going to get the scoop on one pair of St. Louis social climbers this summer, let it be the couple in this song and not those barefoot gun weirdos from Fox News.

Not unrelated: here’s how the song is going over in my hometown, a place desperately in need of some good PR these days:

exile

This woozy lament marks the first Bon Iver collaboration (plus, his only vocal feature) on the record, and includes a co-writing credit by “William Bowery,” who may or may not be Swift’s boyfriend Joe Alwyn. The future of the school year remains in question, but this song begs to be listened to while slamming one’s fist against a locker and then slowly, dejectedly sliding down to the floor as tears stream down your brave face. Try it at home.

my tears ricochet

I was going to say that this song, buoyed by delicate atmospherics and choral backing vocals, summoned a full reboot of The OC, but then Ben McKenzie, Adam Brody and Rachel Bilson all showed up at my doorstep and shot me to death. I have gone through rehab with Kelly Rowan, I have cured Shailene Woodley’s horse of alopecia, I have had a lesbian fling with Olivia Wilde. I am living my best, dewiest 2005 life. Rooney is here, and I am whole.

mirrorball

Taylor Swift is the only American lyricist alive in 2020 who can reference “the masquerade revelers” in a way that is not completely unconvincing. This is a woman who has worn a fancy mask. This is a woman who has seen “Eyes Wide Shut” and gotten right on the horn with a party planner. To know her must be exhausting, but to listen is a treat.

seven

A wistful, piano-driven look back at youth and innocence and West Reading, PA. You know how Gwyneth Paltrow sells those candles called, like, “This Candle Smells Like My Orgasm?” This song could be called “This Song Sounds Like Effective Therapy And Positive Lockdown Visualization Strategies.”

august

Rusty cabin doors, twisted-up bedsheets, a whispered offer to meet behind the mall. This actual August is going to be very chaste and/or very scary for America’s youth, but at least Taylor Swift is giving them imagery. As I write this, the Internet is alight with speculation that this song is the middle chapter in a story that encompasses “cardigan” and “betty,” a thing which a) feels true, and b) where a lot of this deep-dive textual-analysis fandom energy is going now that JK Rowling is a villain.

this is me trying

Taylor has long had a knack for the perfect visual metaphor, and as of this listen, “You’re a flashback on a film reel on the one screen in my town,” is the most vivid of the album. I did take a moment during the cinematic, reverb-soaked missive to wonder when Taylor Swift was last in a town with a single one-screen theater. It was probably just after she bought Missoula, Montana or whatever.

illicit affairs

I mean, she did write and record an entire goddamn album during lockdown, but in the lines “What started in beautiful rooms/Ends with meetings in parking lots,” Taylor Swift proves that she’s spent at least some of her waking hours watching some trashy-ass television, just like you. This soothes me.

invisible string

I truly don’t know how they get this done so quickly, but the internet has already deduced that Joe Alwyn did in fact wear a teal shirt in the yogurt shop where he did in fact work when he was 16, just as the lyrics in this meditation on fate indicates—before I’ve even gotten there on my first listen, the moment this album dropped. Do these people work in teams? What is the organizational structure?

mad woman

A brief, more serene and centered return to the themes Swift explored in "Reputation," and though we don’t know who she’s addressing when she says “wishing me dead really brought you two together,” I expect to wake up to a full dissertation.

epiphany

This is where Swift goes full chamber-pop, where she earns the “alternative” categorization this album falls under on the streaming services. If you can get yourself to a field of wheat and slowly run your hand over the top of it while listening, I’d recommend that.

betty

Though it comes near the end of folklore, this song acts as the album’s centerpiece. It delivers the same key-change wallop as “Love Story;” it tells a story either of a teenage love triangle or an illicit lesbian affair, or both. (Or neither.) It’s possible that Taylor Swift will never be able to write a song that’s pure fiction without fans trying to tie it to imagined real events. I only know that I am now aware that Karlie Kloss’s middle name is “Elizabeth.”

peace

“I could never give you peace” is a second draft of “there’s a lot of cool girls out there” that could only have come from a whole lot of downtime and soul-searching. It’s recorded in what feels like a small, empty room, with a fuzzy guitar tone and a synth loop, a bedroom recording from the rare pop genius who seems to be mentally well.

hoax

She’s been a precocious country star, an awards-show over-actress, a Max Martin muse, a pop queen, a good girl, a bad guy, a villain, a victim, a tabloid fixture, and a real estate speculator. Now she guides us through the darkest American moment we’ve ever lived through. folklore is the sound of exploration and confidence, searching and serenity, joy and uncertainty. It’s the therapy session you need, the story that manages to hold your interest, the scented candle you could afford back in February.

Rare among Taylor Swift’s recent records, it’s one I know I’ll come back to. I mean, where else am I going?


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