Get your cardigan; it’s Swiftie season.
My dear readers, if you know one thing about me, it is that I am hopelessly beholden to stanning the famously blonde Nashville-transplant-turned-pop-superstar Taylor Alison Swift.
And so it is with an immense amount of joy that I share with you here my in-depth thoughts on her 8th (!) studio album folklore, recorded and released during COVID-19 quarantine. This release marked a significant departure for Swift–sonically, of course, but also in its rollout. Where her past releases (especially post-Red) have been months-long affairs kicked off with the massive fanfare of a lead single (sometimes a gift like “Shake It Off;” other times, she gives us… “ME!”), interviews, awards show performances, radio station shows, promotional singles (usually restore the public’s faith in her), more interviews, album release, album promo (and so on), folklore was a surprise release.
I was actually asleep when she announced it the day before she planned to release it. This is uncharted territory for Swift and thus uncharted territory for me, a lowly Swiftie. Here is the tweet in question:
folklore is, and I do not say this lightly, Swift’s best work. In light of this, any criticism I offer of any track is built on the underlying assumption that every track on this album is, in fact, the greatest song ever released. So jot that down.
1. the 1
Swift has a bit of a penchant for strong opening tracks, and the cheekily titled “the 1” (get it, it’s track 1) is no exception. “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit / Been saying yes instead of no,” she sings in the instantly-iconic opening lines.
It’s also a fitting introduction to the central conceit of the album; in line with its title, folklore is a collection of songs that are often entirely fictional. I hadn’t yet processed this fact upon first listen and was deeply concerned that Taylor and longtime boyfriend Joe Alwyn had broken things off. But fear not, readers, this is fiction.
“the 1” has all the elements of a great Swift song (namely melodrama, lament, and Pretending To Be Over Something She Obviously Isn’t), heightened by sparse production from The National’s Aaron Dessner–the album’s executive producer and producer/co-writer for 11 of the 17 tracks. As an opener, it doesn’t quite reach the heights of her best track 1s (“State of Grace,” “…Ready For It?,” “Fearless”), but it’s certainly not her weakest (looking at you, “Welcome to New York”). 8/10
The album’s lead single, complete with a very clever merch tie-in. If I had to pick one song to play someone so they got the whole thing she was going for with this album, it’d be “cardigan.” It’s centered on a quintessentially Swiftian extended metaphor comparing new love in the face of hopelessness to someone putting on an old, abandoned cardigan (?). I wish I knew how her brain worked.
She also leans on her penchant for creating atmosphere by listing things. Taylor Swift loves to list things, and boy, does she list things here. High heels on cobblestones. Dancing in your Levi’s. Black lipstick. The titular cardigan. Vintage tee. Downtown bars. Peter losing Wendy.
It’s some of the best lyricism of her career, evoking a nuanced mixture of nostalgia, heartbreak, loss, and hope. “I knew you / Leaving like a father / Running like water,” she croons in a particularly hard-hitting series of lines.
She’s once again doing the fiction thing on “cardigan,” introducing a “teenage love triangle” conceit she continues later in the album on “august” and “betty.” It’s not the clearest from just listening to the album, but essentially the story goes that James and Betty were an item, James had a summer fling with another girl (some fans have started calling her August?), Betty finds out, James tries to win Betty back. This song, then, is from Betty’s perspective–a meditation on the love she had from James, the way infidelity fractured what they had (“Chase two girls / lose the one”), and her insistent hope for a better future (“I knew you’d come back to me”). 10/10
3. the last great american dynasty
Famously played at Ed Markey’s Zoom party after he defeated Joe Kennedy, this track actually has nothing to do with the Kennedys (check out Red‘s “Starlight” for Swift’s take on Kennedy fanfiction) and everything to do with the former owners of her Rhode Island beach house. Specifically, she’s interested in the life of Rebekah Harkness, wife of Standard Oil magnate Bill Harkness and heir to his fortune after his untimely death (“It must have been her fault his heart gave out”).
Politically, this track exists in a weird space. In the midst of increasing national pushes to “eat the rich” and disdain for the oil industry, it’s strange to be listening to a song that romanticizes the disruptive life of a woman enabled with oil money.
But damn, this is a good song. Like, one of the best she’s ever written.
The glitchy production from Dessner recalls The National’s own Sleep Well Beast, and Swift’s understated songwriting and delivery wouldn’t feel too out of place on that record either. She frames Harkness’ story as that of a misunderstood outsider who fell prey to misogynistic gossip and ultimately retreated into her own inner world – not dissimilarly from Swift’s own life circa 1989 (during which The Squad and her massive 4th of July parties were at their peak).
At the end of the bridge, she flips the song’s perspective as she masterfully did in past tracks like “Mine” and “Love Story,” making explicit the ties between her life and Harkness’s. “Who knows if I never showed up what could’ve been?” she sings after revealing she bought Harkness’s house some fifty years later.
She had a marvelous time ruining everything. 10/10
4. exile (feat. Bon Iver)
OHHHHHH BABY. This is the one that gave me major brain damage. We live in a world where Taylor Swift and Bon Iver, two of Depression’s Greatest Hits, decided to collaborate and traumatize literally all of us.
And oh, did it work.
There are so many things I could say about this track. Justin Vernon is a bass now! “I think I’ve seen this film before, and I didn’t like the ending!” Taylor’s breathy angelic vocals! The build in the bridge! The part where their vocal lines weave in and out! The harmonies on “so many signs!”
“exile” makes me feel the same way that the ending sequence of La La Land does. Which is to say it hurts me in ways I didn’t know I could be hurt, but I don’t think I have the right to be mad because it’s so good.
It is at this point that I feel it is my duty to discuss the William Bowery of that all. Both “exile” and late-stage track “betty” credit “William Bowery” as a writer. If you’re wondering who William Bowery is, so am I! He doesn’t exist. This man. Does. Not. Exist. And no one seems to know who he is, or why he’s credited. Taylor’s playing dumb about it. Dessner doesn’t know who he is. None of my Twitter followers know, either.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time Swift has engaged in pseudonym antics. After all, who can forget when Nils Sjöberg co-wrote then-boyfriend Calvin Harris’s “This Is What You Came For” and then was revealed to be Swift months later, to the shock of no one? Or earlier this year when a band called Jack Leopards & the Dolphin Club covered Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” for Killing Eve, only for us to quickly learn that there was no actual band under this name, and it was actually an attempt to divert royalties from Scooter Braun.
Theories on who Bowery is range from the absurd (Suga from BTS!) to the expected yet unexplainable (Swift herself, but why would she credit herself twice?) to the most likely theory, boyfriend Joe Alwyn. The two were spotted publicly for one of the first times together at the Bowery Hotel in New York, which would explain his connection to the name Bowery.
No matter what, it’s weird. But “exile” is fantastic. 10/10
5. my tears ricochet
And here we have one of Swift’s mythologized Track 5s, famously the Big Emotional Moment of their parent album. “All Too Well” is a Track 5, for example, as is “Dear John.” “my tears ricochet” is also her first collaboration with Jack Antonoff on this album, a pairing that has produced such god-tier songs as “Cruel Summer,” “Getaway Car,” “Out of the Woods,” and “New Year’s Day.” Which is all to say a lot was riding on this track.
It’s a great song, if not quite up to the impossibly lofty expectations set by the Jack-Antonoff-produced-track-5 of it all. And I do love this song–a lot, actually–but I can’t help but think I’d love it more if “mirrorball” or “epiphany” were track 5 instead. But whatever.
Ostensibly about Swift’s ongoing battle with Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta over ownership of her masters, “ricochet” is an immensely vulnerable song (if not the most so on this album). It is also, incidentally, the first firmly autobiographical song on folklore. You didn’t forget how good she is at confessional songwriting, did you? Well, she won’t let you.
Her vocal performance here is among the best of her whole career, understated and emotive until she lets loose at the bridge (“And I still talk to you / when I’m screaming at the sky”). Also worth mentioning is the line “if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?” because holy shit it’s so great.
To be clear, I adore “my tears ricochet.” I just put a lot of pressure on it to completely wreck me, which it didn’t quite live up to through no fault of its own. It was just put in The Spot on the album. It’s still great, though. 9/10
OHHHHHHHHHHH BITCH THIS IS THE ONE!!!! SHOEGAZE TAYLOR SWIFT!
This is my favorite kind of Taylor Swift song, the ones that seem to sneak into your therapy appointments and take notes and then present them back to you more gracefully and thoughtfully than you could ever articulate them yourself. It’s one of the Swift songs that creates a rift in your life pre- and post-hearing it. “Oh, that’s how I feel,” songs like “mirrorball” make you say. “I’ve never been able to put it into words before now.”
The central conceit of this song is a particularly Swiftian one–comparing herself to a reflective disco ball (the titular mirrorball), showing everyone around her what they want to see and begging for–demanding–your constant attention, all the while under the constant threat of shattering. She’s so good.
“mirrorball” works on a number of levels; most immediately, it’s a meditation on feeling formless and at the whim of those around you. “I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight,” Swift sings in the first verse over massive shoegaze-y production courtesy of Antonoff. It’s a startlingly raw declaration from someone who’s always shown fans just enough to appear authentic while still untouchable.
But what does a mirrorball do when the party isn’t going on? When there aren’t a ton of people to reflect? “Hush, when no one is around my dear / you’ll find me on my tallest tiptoes / spinning in my highest heels, love / shining just for you,” Swift whisper-sings on the chorus. She’s commanding attention, but she doesn’t seem convinced she deserves it. But she’ll put on one hell of a show to make sure she gets it.
On that note, “mirrorball” also works as a comment on fame and how Swift herself has responded to criticism, namely circa reputation. “You are not like the regulars / masquerade revelers / drunk as they watch my shattered edges glisten,” she sings on the second verse, recalling songs on reputation like “Call It What You Want” or “New Year’s Day” where she celebrates a love that cuts through the noise of, well, her reputation.
She also, and I cannot stress this enough, evokes (I can’t believe I’m typing this) THE SMITHS ON THIS TRACK. Namely “Panic,” one of my favorite Smiths songs, which famously has the lines “burn the disco down / hang the blessed DJ.” On “mirrorball,” Swift sings: “And they called off the circus / burned the disco down / when they sent home the horses and the rodeo clowns / I’m still on that tightrope / I’m still trying everything to get you laughing at me.” BITCH!!!
There’s also the note of the sonic palette of this song. God, it’s so good. As I mentioned earlier, she’s doing shoegaze drag here, and every bit of this track serves its nostalgic and reflective (lol) aesthetic. At times, her voice blends into the texture and acts as more of an instrument than anything, only to announce itself a few moments later. The way she sings “hush” deserves an EGOT. 15/10
She’s so clever, putting “seven” as track 7.
It is at this point, readers, that I feel it is my obligation to get into the inevitable queerness of it all. That’s right, this song is gay. There is no way around it.
Which is not to say that this song is Gaylor proof (this is certainly one of the fictional ones on the album) but it is gay nonetheless. I simply won’t let her sing “your braids like a pattern / love you to the moon and to Saturn” and “hide in the closet” on the same song and get away with it. I simply won’t.
It’s a great song. I don’t really know what to say about it because whenever I get here my brain is fried from all the trauma in “mirrorball.” But “seven” is just, in the purest of forms, a great song.
It’s also really firmly in line with the whole “folk” idea, explicitly referring to folk songs at one point and existing the most firmly in the space of pastoral nostalgia we expect from an album called folklore. “seven” centers on a childhood relationship where the narrator’s friend/girlfriend/? is experiencing abuse at home and the two make a pledge to run away together (“we’ll move to India forever”). The whole thing is beautiful and haunting and pristine and gay. 10/10
Taylor at it again with the clever track placements. Because August is famously the eighth month. And it’s track 8. Ha.
Remember the love triangle thing from “cardigan?” Well, we’re back! And this time, we’re hearing from the other woman’s perspective. People call her August because of this song, but honestly I don’t think that makes sense whatsoever because the titular August clearly refers to the month the fling took place. But whatever. I’m going to call her Karlie. Just a random name I picked, no significance whatsoever.
Anyway, this song is from Karlie’s perspective as she recounts the exhilaration and endless potential she felt during her summer fling with James. It’s another Antonoff collaboration, and this is probably the most quintessentially Antonoffian (?) song on the album. It’s big and anthemic in the way a lot of his work is — albeit not in the way that, say “Cruel Summer” is big. It’s more along the lines of his work with The Chicks this year or, and I hate to mention her, Lana Del Rey.
Swift once again loves to list things. Salt air. The rust on your door. Your back beneath the sun. Us, twisted in bedsheets (scandalous!). She also does the thing that she does a lot where she’ll repeat a line but change it slightly and be really clever about it. In this case it’s “August slipped away into a moment in time” vs. “August sipped away like a bottle of wine.” Her brain is so big.
As is par for the course with her, the bridge is otherworldly. I can’t describe what exactly makes this song so incredible, but if you listen to it, I’m sure you’ll understand. There’s a moment when she repeats the bridge and the instrumentals crash in that makes me go absolutely feral. There is magic in this song. 11/10
9. this is me trying
Taylor Swift should not feel these things. Great song though. 10/10
10. illicit affairs
Bringing up the gay thing because there is no way a straight person would be this dramatic about a straight relationship it cannot be that serious. But I digress.
This is another track on the sparse/”folky” side of things, and it gets the job done super well. She’s singing about being the other woman (but, to my knowledge, not in the sense of being Karlie or Betty or James), and unlike past Taylor Swift Cheating Songs like “Should’ve Said No,” “Girl at Home,” “Getaway Car,” or “Gorgeous,” she takes a really nuanced approach here. The first two tracks were pretty standard condemnations of infidelity, bordering on preachy, and the latter two frame adultery as a sexy, fun, forbidden sort of activity.
Here, she addresses both truths: there’s a “dwindling mercurial high” about the titular affairs, but there’s heartbreak as well. Swift showcases a lot of maturity on this track, acknowledging the shame attached to infidelity but also its inherent allure.
If “illicit affairs” exists for one reason, it’s as a vehicle to get to (you guessed it) the bridge. This is a bridge that simply must be experienced. It’s one of the most visceral outpourings of emotion in her discography. And that, readers, is the thing about illicit affairs. 10/10
11. invisible string
CENTENNIAL PARK! Centennial Park. Centennial Park!! Taylor wrote a song set in our dear Centennial. “Green was the color of the grass where I used to read in Centennial Park,” she sings in the opening line. I checked the other week; it is still, in fact, green. She’s so observant!
She also has her most obnoxiously out-of-touch moment on this album when she sings of boyfriend Alwyn (this is an autobiographical song!): “Teal was the color of your shirt when you were 16 at the yogurt shop / you used to work at to make a little money.” Yes, readers, Swift is romanticizing working in food service during high school. Aw, that’s so cute that you were poor, she seems to be saying. I can’t listen to that line without laughing at her.
Centennial references (it comes back later, too!) and romanticism of minimum wage work aside, this is the one (1) pure, happy love song on the album. It’s cute! In case we forgot that Swift is actually in a deeply committed and satisfying relationship, she made sure to remind us here. The titular invisible string is exactly the kind of ridiculously saccharine comparison you expect from a song about being stupidly in love: “all along there was some invisible string tying you to me-e-e-e-e-e-e-e.”
It’s all built over a Dessner guitar riff he played on an Instagram live pretty early in quar. Of course, at the time, no one knew it would eventually become a Taylor Swift song, and I don’t think he did either. But as Taylor does, she heard it and RAN WITH IT. Also notable: the lines “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind for the boys who broke my heart / now I send their babies presents.” Sums up her career arc so perfectly. 10/10
12. mad woman
In this hybrid “the last great american dynasty”-sequel-Kimye-commentary-Scott-and-Scooter-commentary, Swift frames herself as the titular “mad woman.” What a shame she went mad.
Mad, of course, in the sense it’s initially meant of being insane. But she’s also mad in the sense that Swift is pissed off and is being utterly violent with every word she sings here. “Does a scorpion sting when fighting back? They strike to kill, and you know I will. You know I will.” This woman is terrifying.
When she asks, “do you see my face in the neighbor’s lawn? Does she smile? Or does she mouth ‘fuck you forever?'” it feels like she’s ready to literally stab you. Also! It’s the first example of Taylor saying “fuck” in a song. Baby’s first parental advisory sticker! 8/10
Obligatory song on a quarantine record which is, on some level, about COVID. Sort of. It’s also about war, but as a metaphor I think. Per usual, she expertly centers a conceit which on paper sounds like it shouldn’t work.
It’s also crucial that when I say she’s talking about war, I mean it in the way that Dunkirk presented war. This song feels sobering and contemplative in the way that Dunkirk does. It’s also an effective conceit in that it rightfully frames essential workers, especially healthcare workers, as selfless martyrs (I feel it important to add that Swift doesn’t seem to exalt the military in the way the US as a whole does, which is refreshing).
The bits set explicitly in hospitals remind me of this year’s Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always as they evoke feelings of finding support in a vulnerable moment. It’s hard for me not to weep when Swift comes in with the “only twenty minutes to sleep, but you dream of some epiphany” line. It’s exquisite. 9/10
Here. We. Go.
I simply cannot believe that this fruity little song exists. I lost count of how many people texted me in the days following folklore‘s release to ask me about the queerness of this song. Or to be like “wait, I think that whole Karlie Kloss theory was onto something.” Gay little Betty.
We’ve arrived at the third song of the love triangle! This time, it’s James’ turn to speak. (Note: James, Betty, & Inez, who we’ll get to later, are the names of Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively’s daughters. DAUGHTERS. OK moving on.) At this point, Betty found out about James’ infidelity, as established in “cardigan.” And James is determined to get her back.
And how did Betty find out, you might ask? From that lying bitch Inez, of course. “You heard the rumors from Inez / you can’t believe a word she says…most times. / But this time it was true,” Swift/James sings in the pre-chorus. Scathing take-down of a literal three year old.
Sonically, this is Taylor’s most country song in a looooong time. She sang this at the Academy of Country Music awards, that’s how country it is. There’s a damn harmonica. She’s pretending she has a Southern accent again. Just like old times. Also, this is a “Bowery” co-write again, whatever that means.
Queer (sub)text aside, this is classic Swiftian storytelling and melodrama in the fashion of “Fifteen” or “Enchanted,” and it succeeds tremendously. It’s the most upbeat song on the album by a pretty significant margin and is practically begging to be screamed out at stadiums.
This is the second song where Swift says “fuck” on the album, and she is clearly having so much fun saying it. “Would you tell me to go fuck myself, or lead me to the garden?” she sings with such tongue-in-cheek joy it’s hard to resist believing in James’s words.
AND WE HAVEN’T EVEN TALKED ABOUT THE KEY CHANGE YET!!! Key changes are, of course, canonically queer because I said so. And oh, does this key change.
It’s not at the bridge either, which would seem typical for Swift, would it not? The bridge is a beast of its own, melodrama of the highest caliber, complete with power chords which drop out at key dramatic moments and Swift singing the line “slept next to her, but I dreamt of you all summer long.” We got you on tape.
No, readers, the key change is at the last chorus when gay little James shows up to gay little Betty’s gay little party to win her back. In my favorite set of lines from the whole album, she sings: “Yeah, I showed up at your party / will you have me? Will you love me? / Will you kiss me on the porch in front of all your stupid friends? / If you kiss me, will it be just like I dreamed it? / Will it patch your broken wings?” BITCH!!!!! How does someone just WRITE THAT? And think that I’m just supposed to move on with my life?
Also, in the last section, she rhymes “cardigan” with “car again.” Queen shit.
It took me a while to give this song the respect it deserves, simply because my brain was always irreparably fried after “betty.” But I’m so grateful I didn’t let that stop me because “peace” is one of the most exquisite songs Swift has ever written.
If there’s a trap that Swift can occasionally fall into, it’s being formulaic. And for good reason–standard pop structures and emotional beats give her great results. But on “peace,” she can’t be contained by a regular verse-chorus-bridge structure. A lot of this song feels improvisational (and it might have been: she recorded the song, according to Dessner, in one take off a sample he and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver created).
“peace” is a love song in the absolute purest and most devoted sense, with some of the lushest lyrics she’s ever written. Taylor Swift is in love (in case that wasn’t clear from Lover). It’s similar thematic content to a lot of reputation, with this song’s central idea being that Swift “could never give you peace” due to her fame and baggage.
I don’t know what else to say about this except that it’s exquisite. Oh, and she mentions some “clowns to the [W]est.” Good one, Taylor. 11/10
There are three pivotal tracks to a Taylor Swift album, and she rarely messes these up: the opener, Track Five, and the closer–typically a meditation on the themes of the album overall, with some poignant final line. Her closing tracks are among her very best work, including such gems as “Begin Again,” “Our Song,” “Long Live,” “Clean,” and “New Year’s Day” (she’s goooood at these).
…which is what made “hoax” perplexing on first listen. As the closing track to the standard edition of the album, it felt like an unfinished thought in a way no Swift closer has before. I found myself wanting “peace” to be the closer — it’d be such an incredible ending, and it feels final. “hoax,” unfortunately, does not. But maybe that’s the point?
By no means is “hoax” a bad song. It’s a great song, in fact; it’s haunting, and the central conceit (“your faithless love’s the only hoax I believe in”) is compelling. But at the same time, I’m not convinced in “hoax” as the final statement on the crowning achievement of Swift’s career. 7/10
17. the lakes (bonus track)
Thankfully, there’s a bonus track! And “the lakes” does, in fact, feel final in the way that we expect Taylor Swift album closers to. This track sees Swift leaning into obnoxiously literary territory, namedropping Wordsworth and “sad prose” amidst a set of lyrics straight from the thesaurus.
Sonically, she’s interested in a real sense of pastoralism once again on this track (making it a fitting ending to an album called folklore), with the intro evoking old movie overtures. It’s rather sparse, which is fitting for a song so concerned with stripping life down to its barest bones.
At times, Swift’s disdain for the chaos of the modern world veers into “old man yells at cloud” territory, as on the line “a red rose grew up out of ice frozen ground / with no one around to tweet it.” But, as she tends to do, she sells this ridiculous sentiment and at the very least comes across hopelessly earnest, which is one of the things that has drawn listeners to Swift for over 13 years now.
It’s still no “Begin Again,” but nothing is. 9/10