Listening to Folklore, I’m rushed back to a trip to D.C. to see Taylor Swift on the Red tour. As an annoying pre-pubescent young lad, the fog of pride stopped me from seeing greatness in front of me. In fact, it took years for me to accept Taylor Swift, the most dynamic and talented singer-songwriter of a generation, into my life – boy, did I spend years missing out. So, the truth’s out: I slept on Taylor Swift.
I arrived late to the party with no present in hand, receiving a “finally” from the droves of folks already there (mostly just my sister, who’d been a Swift fan since day one). This all might make it easier to describe Folklore as groundbreaking greatness, as a first in Swift’s career, an entrance into a more Americana sound than her previous records, but that’d be a lie. Swift’s been here the whole time. Folklore is the piece de resistance in a career that will land her amongst the greats.
It’s impossible to write about Folklore without writing about the collaborators that have their fingerprints all over the album. Jack Antonoff, Bleachers front man, and consistent partner of Swift, Lorde, and others, helped write and produce the album. More notable to the album’s sound, however, is Swift’s partnership with Aaron Dressner of The National. His sound leaks onto and fills the entirety of Folklore, creating a record with the indie chops of Dressner’s work, alongside the pop appeal and writing juggernaut of Swift. Throw in a feature from Bon Iver on the back-and-forth heartbreaker “Exile” and Folklore shows Swift knows how to bring together the musical Avengers of making you want to stare out the window with a glass of whiskey in hand while the rain slowly falls down.
The record moves deliberately, almost like a movie where the narrator is an older, wiser version of the titular character, peaking in from time to time to share key details or to move the plot along. As always, this Swift record contains songs and lyrics swiping at ex-lovers and revisiting lost flames. However, now, Swift seems to write with the outlook and maturity of someone looking back on youth.
The scorn and pain of “All Too Well” and “Back to December” and all the other timeless Swift break-up jams seem to have fallen away into the abyss of time, leaving a more reflective tone in its place. The wisdom of someone who has felt the depth of heartbreak more than once echoes throughout Swift’s record, but, alongside it, rings the sound of growth, of making peace with the pain of the past.
As Swift says herself, “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind/For the boys who broke my heart/Now I send their babies presents.” The chaos of adolescence and early adulthood, for Swift, seems to have given away for the calmness of finally coming to age.
None of that takes away from the heartbreak of the album. In fact, this might be Swift’s most heartbreaking piece of work to date. Each song plumbs the emotional depths of growing up and growing past old relationships. The album adeptly delves into the relationships that didn’t work. It explores the ones we keep trying over and over and over again to no avail and the ones that never even got their fair shake – the ones we lay up at night still dreaming about, wondering what could have been if only there had been more time.
“The 1” kicks off the album exploring an alternate reality, wondering “if one thing had been different, would everything be different today.” Daydreaming reverberates throughout the album. Swift explores her heartbreaks and hopes over indie folk production that could draw in listeners who usually push away Swift as a product of country-pop fusion too beneath their ears (oh how wrong they are, oh how wrong I have been).
Right now, in the midst of a pandemic and social reckoning, it feels like a simple luxury to lay down and listen to this album. Swift began to find her political voice in 2018, endorsing Democrat Phil Bredesen in his race against Republican Marsha Blackburn). Earlier this year, Swift released a documentary on her rise to stardom. The documentary follows the criticism that often comes along with that spotlight – discussing her rise to political awareness.
Sexism often attacks her work. The music industry forces her to redefine herself over and over again while her male compatriots can release albums with the same sound ad nauseam without being forced to reinvent themselves. Simply put, they don’t face the heat that comes along with being a 16-year-old songwriting prodigy that has sustained her success into her late twenties.
“Mad Woman” on Folklore attacks the patriarchal mindset’s that often belittles if not outright dismisses Swift’s work. Here, Swift’s on the attack, and, frankly, it rocks. The second verse ends with “It’s obvious that wanting me dead/Has really brought you two together,” a cutting dig. Swift knows her greatness. She lives rent free in the heads of the men who have doubted her, stolen from her, and tried to embarrass her, from Scooter Braun to Kanye West.
Swift’s grown into her voice, politically, coming to understand the importance of standing up and speaking out. While Folklore doesn’t explicitly address our socio-political moment, the tone of her music speaks to the confidence of an artist certain of her voice and certain of her place along the greatest singer-songwriters of all-time.
At the end of the day, Folklore feels like a solemn reflection. Swift journeys through love and loss, the relationships worth fighting for and the one’s that really hurt. From the daydreaming of “the 1” to the ethereal pain of “exile” to the joyful, youthful hope of “Betty”, the album’s an emotional balm during a hard time. To listen to it and not feel the full range of human emotion, from tears to laughter to envy to hope, is to not listen to it at all.
After all, Taylor Swift wrote this music. Taylor Swift’s singing this music. She’s playing the guitar and playing her hand in production. That’s the key here: this isn’t a coming-to-age or a “finally” moment for Taylor Swift; Taylor Swift’s been the most dynamic singer-songwriter of her generation since she entered the scene. Folklore just makes that clear to anybody and everybody.