“Our Coming-of-Age Has Come and Gone”: A Review of Taylor Swift’s “folklore”

(Credit: Beth Garrabrant)

With her atmospheric and impressionistic new record folklore, Taylor Swift hasn’t just made another in a string of superlative albums – she’s created nothing less than a modern masterpiece. It’s an album I’ve been hoping she’d make, one that puts her singular skills as a singer-songwriter on full display. Her unique ability to forge a sense of intimacy and emotional connection with her listers has always been her strong suit; strip away everything else and it’s the fundamental reason why she’s the last true rock star we’re likely to ever see. But with folklore, Swift has managed a unique artistic achievement that ought to cement her place in the storied pantheon of American popular music.

At turns delicate, vulnerable, and pensive, folklore provides an intriguing contrast to last year’s propulsive Lover. Where that excellent album represented a driven and urgent statement of artistic purpose, folklore amounts to an introspective odyssey through many of Swift’s abiding creative concerns and inspirations. As she herself wrote in her introductory note, the album comprises “a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness.” Swift’s sharp lyrics and affecting vocals dance across a sparse and ethereal sonic landscape, words and music each elegantly complementing one other throughout the album. Reprising and extending a number of its predecessor’s themes, folklore at times proves more emotionally powerful than any of her previous work.

On folklore, Swift tells us that wisdom and maturity cannot be earned without the hurt and heartache that comes with life. These torments are universal, an intrinsic part of the human condition that we can’t escape – but as Swift understands, we can learn much about ourselves from these ordeals and move forward with our lives more than a little wiser for the wear. She repeatedly calls upon evocative imagery of physical scars, wounds, and bleeding to press home her case with the sort of conviction that only personal experience can provide. But Swift doesn’t lament the countless scars she’s picked up over the years; indeed, she welcomes them. If there’s any one overriding idea lurking in folklore, it’s amor fati – the love of fate, a philosophical notion that first surfaced on Lover and which she brings it very much to the surface on folklore.

That’s apparent with the album’s opening track, the aptly-titled “the 1.” Almost immediately, Swift makes clear that she’s approaching her past relationships with maturity and equanimity. She says she’s “doing good” and has “been saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no,’” reflecting on a failed relationship without bitterness or remorse. Despite looking back now and musing that “it would have been fun if this romance had lasted, Swift knows digging up the past does no good. But she’s accepted the end of her relationship and learned from the experience, acknowledging that “if you never bleed you’re never going to grow/And it’s alright now.” At its core, it’s a speculative reflection from a woman who appreciates what she’s received from a relationship now past – scars and all.

Indeed, vivid lyrics involving scars, wounds, and bleeding mark a number of folklore’s songs. “You drew scars around my stars/But now I’m bleeding,” Swift’s protagonist tells her youthful love on “cardigan.” She acknowledges feeling “like an open wound” when out at a party after wrecking her relationship on “this is me trying,” while on “hoax” she reminds her “faithless love” that he “knew it still hurts underneath my scars/From when they pulled me apart.” But it’d be a mistake to assume this imagery amounts to a simple metaphor for emotional pain. For Swift, the scars we collect teach us hard lessons about life and help make us who we are. It’s an idea that features prominently on Lover’s title track, and Swift explores it far more fully here on folklore.

Swift also builds her introspective frame of mind through the dreamy soundscapes that accompany her contemplative lyrics. On “mirrorball,” for instance, wispy guitar chords reinforce Swift’s lyrical meditation on the need for personal intimacy amidst the wages of celebrity – especially officious demands that she reflect certain views back at her listeners and critics. While she’ll “show you every version of yourself tonight” and will “change everything about me to fit in,” Swift longs for privacy with the object of her affection. When she’s finally alone, Swift tells him, she can be found “Spinning in my highest heels, love/Shining just for you.” It’s a true measure of Swift’s skill as a songwriter that she can translate her own extremely idiosyncratic encounters with the madness of celebrity into a words that speak to the all-too-common social pressures we all face to conform – not to mention the privacy and intimacy we all seek for ourselves, away from the clamor of the crowd. 

Likewise, Swift’s haunting vocals on “this is me trying” echo her lyrical acceptance of personal responsibility and a faltering attempt to repair a broken relationship. Returning to themes broached on songs like “Afterglow” and “Daylight” from Lover, she acknowledges her own shortcomings while recounting her own struggle to change for the better. “They told me all of my cages were mental/So I got wasted like all my potential,” Swift admits. But she’s now “Pouring my heart out to a stranger” rather than sabotaging herself with alcohol “At least I’m trying,” Swift confesses – and that’s all any of us can do, even if like her we maybe “don’t know quite what to say.”

Swift’s raw and fragile vocals on songs like “seven” amplify her stellar songwriting and lend folklore an exquisite emotional vulnerability. “Are there still beautiful things?” she plaintively wonders, reminiscing about her promise to love a childhood friend “to the Moon and to Saturn.” Elegant guitar and piano work enhances the beautiful pastoral imagery painted by Swift’s graceful lyrics, gently guiding us through a bittersweet recollection of youth and a friend whose face she can no longer recall. But it’s enough for her that this memory and the emotions it conjures up will be “passed down like folk songs” through the ages.

Then there’s what Swift calls her “teenage love triangle” trilogy, consisting of the songs “cardigan,” “august,” and “betty.” Swift manages to pack a lot into roughly thirteen minutes of music, providing a complex and nuanced take on the follies of youth as told through divergent accounts of a doomed summer affair and its aftermath. Teenagers may not be quite so idiotic as we think, but they’re still prone to the dumb mistakes and false hopes she tenderly describes from the other woman’s perspective in “august.” 

In an attempt to apologize and win back his significant other, the cheating boyfriend James earnestly explains on “betty” that “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything.” It’s not so much that young people frequently make stupid choices, Swift implies, so much as they’re bound to screw up – often spectacularly. As she noted in a recent interview, they need to bleed in order to learn, grow, and mature,: “I think we all have these situations in our lives where we learn to really, really give a heartfelt apology for the first time. Everybody makes mistakes, everybody really messes up sometimes.”

But it’s “invisible string” that’s without doubt folklore’s finest track – and quite possibly the single best song Swift has they written. It’s both something of a spiritual sequel to “Lover” and as sublime an expression of amor fati as we’re likely to hear. Swift somehow proves more than able to distill a number of her animating passions – intimacy, vulnerability, and maturity, among others – into a watercolor daydream four minutes and thirteen seconds long. Above all, though, it’s an affecting love letter to fate and everything it brings.

That’s evident from the buoyant guitar picking that opens the song. Swift begins painting with a technicolor palette, moving from greens and teals to blues to golds as she follows the thread of her fate as it leads to the present. Fate’s companion time assumes various guises throughout the song, at once “curious,” “mystical,” and “wondrous.” It gave Swift “no compasses, gave me no signs” and insisted on “Cutting me open, then healing me fine.” But time also “Gave me the blues and then purple-pink skies/And it’s cool/Baby, with me.” For all that fate and time put her through, Swift remains profoundly grateful that they led her to where she is today: “Hell was the journey but it brought me heaven.”

But fate didn’t just lead Swift to her current relationship. It protected and matured her along the way, pulling her “Out of all the wrong arms,” encasing “all of my past mistakes in barbed wire,” and putting “Chains around my demons/Wool to brave the seasons.” Moreover, Swift no longer has any time for resentments and has grown out of immature feuds. In the past, she acknowledges, “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind/For the boys who broke my heart” – but “Now I send their babies presents.” After stepping into the daylight on the final track of Lover, on “invisible string” Swift is able to more clearly see the “single thread that, for better or worse, ties you to your fate.”

If “invisible string” ranks as folklore’s stand-out track, it’s “epiphany” that strikes the deepest emotional chords. A slow, swelling organ gives way to Swift’s diaphanous vocals as she relates the story of her grandfather hitting the beaches of Guadalcanal as a marine in 1942. With the next verse, Swift’s lyrics establish a compelling correspondence between service on the frontlines of World War II and medical workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic today. Both situations exact costly emotional tolls: “And some things you just can’t speak about.” It’s an effective and moving juxtaposition, one that gives voice to the extreme stresses and raw emotions inherent in confronting our own mortality under desperate circumstances – and how we seek some sort of escape, however brief, “To make some sense of what you’ve seen.”

Two more brooding tracks round out folklore, peace” and “hoax.” On the former, Swift’s long-standing sense of insecurity resurfaces to haunt her once again.  Over an insistent electronic pulse, her quavering vocals let her romantic partner know that she’s “a fire and I’ll keep your brittle heart warm/If your cascade, ocean wave blues come.” But while Swift would “give you my sunshine, give you my best,” she’s well aware of what she brings to a relationship – the bad as well as the good. She can’t honestly promise the object of her affection a peaceful or quiet life since “the rain is always gonna come if you’re standin’ with me.” It’s a song that attests to the mature themes Swift dives into on both Lover and folklore.

Swift’s lyrical skills shine on “hoax,” where the song’s upbeat, tinkling piano riff provides a stark contrast to her melancholy verses. “Don’t want no other shade of blue but you,” she ruefully acknowledges. “No other sadness in the world would do.” Her erstwhile significant other knows she still feels the sting of her past emotional wounds, “But what you did was just as dark.” No matter how painful or difficult it may be, however, Swift recognizes that this relationship simply can’t continue and admits defeat in her effort to maintain it:

My only one

My kingdom come undone

My broken drum

You have beaten my heart

But that’s just part and parcel of Swift’s overall message on folklore. However much we want to escape from the hurt and sadness life throws our way, we can’t avoid it. But if we endure it to the best of our abilities, we’ll find ourselves wiser and stronger for the experience. We can even learn to love our fate, since for better or worse it brings us to wherever we happen to wind up at any particular moment. It’s hard for me personally to listen to folklore – and “invisible string” in particular – without recalling the aphorism attributed to the early Greek founders of the Stoic school of philosophy about a dog leashed to a cart: our canine companion can either struggle in vain against the direction of the cart or happily follow its course. That’s how these philosophers conveyed the notion of amor fati, the thread that runs through folklore as a whole and ties it together. 

With folklore, Swift has both pulled together an introspective classic and firmly secured her place as an artist and songwriter of the highest rank. She’s managed both feats by relying once again on her unsurpassed abilities as a singer-songwriter to create an impressionistic and ethereal record that builds on and expands many of the issues and questions explored on Lover and, indeed, throughout her career. Swift plumbs the depths of universal themes inherent in the human condition on the album: acceptance, maturity, and fate. Ultimately, folklore stands on its own a brilliant record that demands close and mindful listening.

As she often does, Swift reminds us to attend to what really matters in life – and accept the scars and wounds we’ll inevitably pick up along the way. That’s something we ought to remain mindful of as we endure the omni-crisis of 2020, a rolling and kaleidoscopic disaster that shows no sign of letting up anytime soon. At very least, Swift tells us, we have to try. After all, if we never bleed we’ll never truly live.

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