Review | Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’ is a quarantine masterpiece

Taylor+Swift+surprise-released+her+eighth+studio+album%2C+%22folklore%2C%22+at+midnight+on+July+24.

Courtesy of Republic Records

Taylor Swift surprise-released her eighth studio album, "folklore," at midnight on July 24.

By Alison Sivitz, Staff Columnist

Since the beginning of lockdown, I’ve repeatedly expressed my desire to flee to the European countryside and raise sheep.

Somehow, Taylor Swift heard my threats and decided to support my dreams by surprise-releasing her eighth studio album, “folklore,” at midnight on July 24. This news blindsided fans across the world and rendered me completely useless to friends and family. They’d try to talk to me, but I would stare blankly ahead, eyes glazed over, mentally galloping through the dewy grasses of a secluded forest. Now, despite physically living my same pre-album life, I’m spiritually writing from a cottage in the woods. My feet are covered in mud and I can talk to deer. There is no Wi-Fi, so I’m etching this entire review into stone and sending it away via carrier pigeon.

“Folklore” is, without a doubt, Swift’s magnum opus. With an indie-folk sensibility and stripped-down production, each of the album’s tracks is a lyrically dense reminder of the storytelling prowess that’s kept fans coming back for over a decade. While her previous lyricism was undeniably some of the best in the business, Swift has bested herself with this collection of deeply vivid, honest writing.

As the self-proclaimed resident Taylor Swift Correspondent of The Pitt News, I’ve crafted a self-indulgent track-by-track breakdown of “folklore.” Into the forest we go.

“the 1”

Right off the bat, Swift reminds us that she holds all the cards. The last time she announced a new era, she was dancing on rainbows with Brendon Urie and yelling “Hey, kids! Spelling is fun!” — and we all laughed. So she decided to crush our souls by lyrically pondering whether a past relationship could’ve been salvaged. If it weren’t for the buoyant instrumentals, these lyrics would evoke major tears. In reality, though, “the 1” makes me feel like I’m wearing tattered overalls and applying a fresh coat of yellow paint to the walls of my woodland cottage.

“cardigan”

“Cardigan,” whose music video premiered at midnight alongside the full album, is one of the catchiest tracks on “folklore.” Evoking “Red”-era lyricism in the refrain, Swift muses: “and when I felt like I was an old cardigan/ under someone’s bed/ You put me on and said I was your favorite.” As someone who recently dug all the old cardigans out of my childhood closet, these lyrics feel personal. When those cardigans were in style, I strongly identified with Katy Perry’s notion of feeling like a plastic bag. But now, as a grown woman who has transitioned into a more refined and sustainable chapter of life, I absolutely do feel like a crumpled up piece of button-adorned cloth.

“the last great american dynasty”

Swift’s true power is her ability to write the line “the wedding was charming, if a little gauche,” without eliciting a single question from anybody. If any other artist tried to use the word “gauche,” I’d immediately roll my eyes, channel the energy of a ‘90s sitcom bully and say something snarky like “Okay, Webster. If you love your dictionary so much, why don’t you marry it?” I can’t do this with Swift, though, because she’s precise and knows that “gauche” is ridiculously fun to belt during sing-alongs.

I maintain that this song sounds like Swift’s 2012 tune “Starlight” on anxiety medication. While both songs tell dreamily reminiscent stories about real life New England dwellers — “Starlight” paying tribute to Ethel and Bobby Kennedy and “the last great american dynasty” detailing the life of Rebekah Harkness, the previous owner of Swift’s Rhode Island home — “the last great american dynasty” seems far less eager to befriend every living Kennedy.

“exile” feat. Bon Iver

It’s wild how one moment you’re vibing to the word gauche, and the next moment Bon Iver shows up to remind you of your own mortality. The lyric “I think I’ve seen this film before/ and I didn’t like the ending” is the deepest gut punch I’ve felt since realizing it’s not safe to leave the house, which was a pretty high bar to surpass.

Vibe-wise, “exile” feels like “The Last Time” — Swift’s 2012 collaboration with Gary Lightbody — if it grew up and got into wine tasting. Both tracks are piano-heavy duets between past lovers that crush listeners with brooding intensity. “Exile,” though, takes the emotional ambush a step further with its more chillingly intense composition.

I won’t overcomplicate it — this song makes me want to lay in moss.

“my tears ricochet”

Swift famously releases her most beloved ballads as the fifth track on their respective albums. “My tears ricochet” easily lives up to the standard set by its predecessors.

Devastatingly mournful, the chorus reflects: “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace / and you’re the hero flying around, saving face / And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake? / Cursing my name, wishing I stayed / look at how my tears ricochet.” Sonically, it’s the embodiment of turning away from a scorned lover, wiping a single tear and going gently into that good night.

“mirrorball”

If the Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song)” had a delicate film-major cousin, this would be it. But “mirrorball” describes the plight of someone who acts as a mirror for others’ emotions but crumbles under the weight of being alone. The Ying Yang Twins will always have each other’s company, and therefore cannot relate.

“seven”

I often complain that Taylor Swift claims to be from Nashville despite having grown up in Pennsylvania, because that’s a hill I’m willing to die on. I’ve forgiven her, though, due to her lyrical acknowledgement of the Keystone State: “but I, I was high in the sky/ with Pennsylvania under me.” On past albums, this would’ve indicated that Swift was peering down at her home state from an airplane window seat, but in the context of “folklore,” it’s probably about her spiritual transformation into a bird.

This is the most folk-y song on “folklore.” The haunting melody and airy vocals evoke the feeling of sunlight pouring through the cracked stained glass of an abandoned Victorian home, revealing the type of peeling paint and worn wood that can only be produced by the magical convergence of time and nature.

“august”

The lyric “August slipped away into a moment in time / ‘cause it was never mine” makes this the most relatable track on “folklore,” as August 2020 will soon be stolen by COVID-19. On the bright side, “august” is perfect background music for floating around a 100-square-foot Oakland apartment and offering freshly cut strawberries to each member of its pod.

“this is me trying”

This song is haunting for two reasons. First, it makes Swift sound like a ghost trying to communicate with the physical world via dusty gramophone. Second, it serves as a cruel reminder that “folklore” was fully conceptualized and produced during lockdown. As someone who hasn’t had a useful thought in over four months, I can’t imagine sitting down and writing “you’re a flashback in a film reel on the one screen in my town.” This track is simply a troubling reminder of my inability to have brain function.

“illicit affairs”

Taylor Swift can write a bridge like no other, and the earth-shattering “don’t call me kid, don’t call me baby / look at this godforsaken mess that you made me” on “illicit affairs” is not only some of her best bridge writing to date, but a defining moment for “folklore” as a whole. Maybe if Swift had created the “Bridge to Terabithia,” Annasophia Robb’s character would still be alive today.

“invisible string”

This song fills me with the overwhelming urge to get into woodworking.

“mad woman”

I’ve spent much of my life wondering if it’s possible to live a secluded forest life while still channeling the dramatic aura of a murder mystery suspect. “Mad woman” taught me that the answer is an emphatic yes.

Swift opens this minor key scorcher by pensively asking, “What’d you think I’d say to that?” — a question whose intensity makes me want to wander around the forest, screaming into the void for my late husband’s killer to reveal themself. Maybe it was me, maybe it wasn’t. Nobody knows because this scenario is not real.

“epiphany”

Sonically, “epiphany” is what every YouTube guided meditation wishes it could be. Lyrically, it’s the most deeply haunting thing my ears have ever consumed. As mentioned in the album notes, this track was inspired by Swift’s grandfather, Dean, and his attempts to find peace amid the uncertainty of war — a message that has resonated deeply with listeners struggling to cope with the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.

I’m still too emotionally devastated by the first 12 tracks to properly process this information, so I’ve defaulted to meme references by saying “nooo don’t start reflecting on life’s inherent uncertainty, you’re so sexy aha.”

“betty”

On release night, Swift confessed to weaving a “teenage love triangle” into the fabric of “folklore.” This triangle — supposedly composed of “betty,” “cardigan” and “august” — details three different sides of a high school love affair. While “betty” is written from the perspective of a character named James, many fans have speculated that the track may actually tell a bisexual love story. I don’t know if this is true, but I’m grateful to these theories for keeping me occupied until the sun rises and I can resume foraging for twigs and berries.

This song gets bonus points for tasteful harmonica.

“peace”

A dreamy yet heartbreaking ballad, “peace” shines with its maddeningly catchy “the devil’s in the details / but you got a friend in me,” and emotional admission that, in the end, Swift’s status will always prevent her relationships from achieving true solitude.

This is my favorite track on the album, but I didn’t choose it — it chose me, possessing my body and forcing its way out of my mouth every waking hour of every day. I don’t even sleep anymore — I just hum this melody while scrubbing pots and talking to birds.

“hoax”

‘Hoax’ ends the album with a soft gut punch, akin to the feeling of getting beat up by a puppy or watching Timothée Chalamet perform a prolonged on-screen sob. This track ties “folklore” together with a tattered satin ribbon, serving as a reminder of the devastatingly beautiful music that can be born when Swift sits at a piano.

Ultimately, “hoax” is a sobering track that almost reminds listeners of the logistical nightmares associated with going off the grid and spiritually transforming into an oak tree. Almost.

Alison Sivitz writes about pop culture and politics. Follow her on Twitter @ali_sivi. Write to her at [email protected].

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