Just when we thought that 2020 was a lost cause, and couldn’t surprise us anymore, Taylor Swift did the one thing no-one was expecting: she dropped a whole new album out of the blue, folklore.

“Before this year,” Swift wrote on Instagram, “I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music as the ‘perfect’ time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed. My gut is telling me that if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world.” And that is exactly what she did. In less than 24 hours the fans got the announcement of the album’s release, the tracklist, the cover, a music video and, finally, the album itself.

Taylor has left behind the fireworks, the poppy sounds that you can’t do anything but dance to and the Easter egg hunts. Instead, she has created a nostalgic, low-key, indie record that takes you away from your lockdown environment and pandemic worries and soothes you with stories of lost people. It’s a lullaby and a tragic story, all at the same time.

folklore is not a diary entry like her previous albums are; it’s an escape.

[Image Description: Taylor Swift tweeting: 'Surprise!']. Via Taylor Swift on Twitter.
[Image Description: Taylor Swift tweeting: ‘Surprise. Tonight at midnight I will be releasing my 8th studio album, folklore; an entire brand new album of songs I have poured all my whims, dreams, fears and musings into. Pre-order at store.taylorswift.com’]. Via Taylor Swift on Twitter.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about folklore is not its music genre, but its stories.

Taylor was always considered herself first and foremost a songwriter and she has admitted that she writes mostly from her own experience and has compared writing songs with “opening her diary to the world”. Although her songs only sometimes include any names, fans have gotten used to searching for clues in her lyrics that pinpoint to the real-life events that inspired them. If you look closely, you will indeed still find these in folklore too, especially in songs such as invisible strings” and “peace”, likely inspired by her relationship with Joe Alwin as well as the lyric “clowns to the West”, which has been interpreted as a diss towards Kanye West. However, folklore’s brilliant lyrics are not so because they give us insight into the singer’s thoughts and feelings, but because they transport us to new places, new times, new characters and stories.

Listening to “folklore” is like hearing stories that have been passed on from generation to generation

Swift admits it herself when she explains the inspiration for the album: “It started with imagery. (…) Pretty soon these images in my head grew faces or names and became characters. I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t.”

folklore tells fictional stories; it tells real ones, and it also tells some that are both. my tears ricochet shows a man showing up at the funeral of his lover, who he seemingly killed. seven speaks with the voice of a child whose friend lives in an abusive household. cardigan talks about first love and invisible strings about the love that is meant to be. mad woman discusses the “crazy” portrayal of a woman who is cheated on.

Some stories are not directly about Taylor’s life but have reached her in a way or another. epiphany is about Swift’s own grandfather, and his experience in WWII, particularly, in the landing of Guadalcanal in 1942. the last great american dynasty is about Rebekah Harkness, the previous owner of Taylor’s Rode Island home, and her tragic and troubled life. Surprisingly, Rebekah was also known as “Betty”, another track title of the album.

[Image Description: Black and white picture from a newspaper of Rebekah Harkness]. Via St Louis Post.
[Image Description: Black and white picture from a newspaper of Rebekah Harkness, who inspired a song in Taylor’s album. The caption reads “Rebekah Harkness was Betty West (center) when she posed in 1936 with fellow debutantes Judith Gambie (left) and Jane Johnson”.]. Via The St Louis Post.

Many people have interpreted Taylor’s new sound as a return to ‘the old Taylor’. However, the old Taylor never left. Her sound changed, but her songwriting talent was always there, behind the electronic and synth sounds of reputation and under the poppy and catchy rhythms of 1989 and Lover. In folklore she explores yet another sound, a mix between indie, alternative rock and folk.

The old Taylor is more alive than ever in “folklore”.

Once again, Taylor has teamed up with Jack Antonoff to create this beautiful masterpiece. However, he is not the sole producer on folklore. Swift has also collaborated with indie legends such as  The National‘s Aaron Dessner (who has worked on 11 of the 16 songs) and  Bon Iver‘s Justin Vernon (who co-wrote and sings exile). Taylor has also given songwriting credits to a mysterious William Bowery, who is rumored to be her boyfriend Joe Alwyn, as the two of them had one of their first dates on the Bowery Hotel and they have quarantined together.

Yes, folklore has brought back the stories and theatricality of her country records, but it also exhumes the maturity and self-consciousness of her later albums. Moreover, the soft melodies and the wishful instrumentation on folklore leave a lot of room for Taylor’s vice and lyrical mastery to shine through. It is an honest, dreamlike album that is guaranteed to transport you to a different place (and probably make you shed tears).

[Image Description: Taylor Swift in the 'cardigan' music video opening a box that shines]. Via Taylor Swift on Instagram.
[Image Description: Taylor Swift in the ‘cardigan’ music video opening a box that shines]. Via Taylor Swift on Instagram.

Moreover, the music video for cardigan does not disappoint. In the video, which Taylor directed herself, the artist is shown playing the piano only to discover the magic within it. When she opens the piano’s cover, she gets transported into a magic forest and a deep ocean, much like the song transports the listener to a mysterious and past time.

The album title says it all. Listening to folklore is like sitting around the campfire on a fall night and hearing stories that have been passed on from generation to generation.

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  • Beatriz Valero de Urquía

    Beatriz Valero de Urquia is a historian, writer and journalist. She graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2020 and spends her time between Spain and the UK reading, listening to musicals and writing her first novel.