folklore

Courtesy of Universal Music Group

August 4, 2020

TEST SPIN | Taylor Swift — ‘folklore’

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Taylor Swift released her newest album last weekend, surprising audiences with both its unannounced release and stylistic direction. In fitting post-isolation fashion, folklore chronicles Swift’s melancholic reflection on her musical and personal journey with a newfound eagerness for exploration.

The album diverges from the contemporary pop influences and defensive pugnacity that characterized the singer’s past two albums, reputation and Lover, both released amidst the controversy and disputes that have plagued Swift over the past half decade. In contrast, folklore presents a raw and unashamedly vulnerable version of Swift, channeling her country-pop roots while venturing into new indie folk territory, even including a Bon Iver feature. folklore’s typeface diverges from her past work, adorning all-lowercase song and album titles and emulating the informality and sentimentality pervasive in the current era. Although moments in the album closely lean into melodramatic woe, Swift compensates through her mastery in storytelling and lyricism.

Swift signals her evolution in the first track “the 1:” “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit / Been saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’.” The use of profanity in her lyrics is a first for the singer, yet another example of her attempt to step away from her former sweetheart persona. The singer continues to reflect on her public image in moments of self-awareness, particularly in “mad woman” and “the last great american dynasty,” the latter which parallels her life to Rebekah Harkness, a widowed socialite criticized for her independence: “Who knows, if I never showed up, what could’ve been / There goes the loudest woman this town has ever seen / I had a marvelous time ruining everything.” Swift revels in her notoriety, remaining dignified under scrutiny for her position as a successful woman.

Aside from these two tracks, more prevalent throughout the rest of the album are expressions of fragility and insecurity, such as in “cardigan:” “And when I felt like I was an old cardigan / Under someone’s bed / You put me on and said I was your favorite.” Swift narrates the story of someone needing another person to feel self-worth and validation, settling for the role of the side lover in an unfaithful relationship. The theme of dependency is further established in “illicit affairs:” “You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else / And you know damn well / For you, I would ruin myself / A million little times.”

A cardigan is referenced a second time in “betty.” This track could easily belong on Swift’s earlier albums Fearless or Speak Now, with its strong country-pop instrumentation to its lyrics from the perspective of an adolescent in love: “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything / But I know I miss you.” The song is even more reminiscent of her older work through its name-dropping of love interests. Swift seems to also allude to her long history of referencing personal relationships throughout the album: “I knew everything when I was young,” she states in “cardigan,” contrary to the naivete one may have expected of Swift from her debut at 16 years old.

“mirrorball” stands out as an atmospheric and trance-like track conveying a struggle to find self-acceptance: “I want you to know / I’m a mirrorball / I can change everything about me to fit in.” Swift reflects not only on herself as a metaphorical fragile “mirrorball,” but on her battle to maintain her public image while forming her own identity. “this is me trying” utilizes similar echoey vocals against heavier orchestral instrumentation that helps carry the track’s sentiments of guilt and regret. “my tears ricochet” adopts a similar style, with a steady heavy bass drum that anchors the second half, producing a haunting and suspenseful track befitting the hurt and betrayal expressed by the singer.

With several high points throughout the album, “exile” falls short of expectations. The somewhat awkward vocals and the latter half’s droning instrumentation prolong the track for a minute too long, delivering an overdramatized performance of anguish rather than a natural emotional yearning. The closing track “hoax” similarly disappoints as a bleak piano ballad of hopelessness. While lyrical imagery shines in this track, its lackluster instrumentals leave much to be desired.

Pleasantly unexpected, folklore delivers introspective anecdotes easily welcomed during a time of reflection and nostalgia. Swift proves her ability to mature musically and lyrically, not afraid to veer from her previous progression into contemporary pop while drawing from both old and new influences.

While the old Taylor may never be back, she’s older, braver and all the wiser.
Connie Huang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ch653@cornell.edu.