In light of the global pandemic, concerts and music festivals won’t return for at least another year. Various artists mournfully surrendered lucrative tour dates and public appearances, leaving more than just their own pockets empty. The music industry must tread some pretty daunting water for the time being. Yet, right when the world began to lose hope, Taylor Swift returned from the depths to grant the masses a new, unexpected album. While most days seem to pitifully slither by, “folklore” emerged to remind us that the sun still rises.
On Thursday, July 23, Swift turned to Instagram to reveal her eighth studio album, writing, “Most of the things I had planned this summer didn’t end up happening, but there is something I hadn’t planned on that DID happen … Tonight at midnight I’ll be releasing my entire brand new album of songs I’ve poured all of my whims, dreams, fears, and musings into.”
Historically, she composes a careful crescendo of singles that leads up to the complete record release, but the surprise announcement of “folklore” challenges her own notions of promoting new content.
The music industry’s compromised release schedule has forced artists to readapt and change the way they build excitement within their fan bases. Swift eschewed this challenge altogether when announcing her latest album less than a day before its release.
Moving on, moving up
The last few months have undoubtedly been a difficult period of change, and Swift’s latest album laments this guttural aching. Each song shows how strength will always outlast the struggle, echoing the album’s cover art where Swift stands surrounded by an untamed, natural setting. The landscape appears to almost swallow her, yet she still stands.
In “Reputation,” Swift rang in a venomous, spiteful era that lacked reconciliation and capitalized on a beguiling attitude. Her following album, “Lover,” served to rectify her drama queen status through painstaking power ballads.
Though both installments garnered millions in revenue, they focused too much on “redefining” Swift’s motives and plainly branded her as nothing more than an opportunist. “Reputation” especially cashed in on her cultural status as an alleged backstabber.
Unlike the last few albums, which continued an unfulfilling and frankly vapid delve into the realm of pop music, “folklore,” with its lowercase grandeur, inverts her artistic direction entirely. The grating crescendos and overcomposed instrumentals featured in songs like “ME!” are no longer present. Instead, Swift primarily relies on an acoustic sound led by guitar and piano.
Of course, an undesired spotlight still finds its way to her time and time again, but the way in which Swift broaches this drama in her music has evolved. To say the least, Swift’s approach to “folklore” is more productive for both the artist and the audience.
Her lyricism suffered heavily in “Reputation” and “Lover” as a result of an inane focus on airing out her laundry for all to notice. Swift obviously can and should seek to challenge her oppressors, but the platform on which she did so seemed vain.
In “folklore,” Swift revisits her poetic roots through songwriting. Rather than colliding with past controversies head-on, she circumvents her suffering through snappy writing: “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind / For the boys who broke my heart / Now I send their babies presents,” she writes in the album’s standout, “invisible string.”
In such lyrics, Swift demonstrates the immaculate change she has undergone as an artist and an individual. Her writing exemplifies that this album is not a story of redemption, but instead one of great return. This shift still acknowledges her past tendencies to make a dig or two at frenemies in her music, but it circles back with an assurance of newfound integrity.
So, the heart of her storytelling stays true to its source material, but her approach evolves so that pointed anecdotes feel substantial and ultimately optimistic.
“Would it be enough that I could never give you peace?” she questions an unnamed lover in the soft and lilting song “peace.” While heartbreaking, her admission actualizes her development as an artist: It’s not the agony that creates this work, but instead the confidence that she will outlast these struggles.
The rhythmic wave inlaid within these plaintive verses feels akin to a heartbeat, soft and pulsing throughout. In the lines, “Give you my wild, give you a child,” Swift might be alluding to raising a kid with partner Joe Alwyn.
Like virtually everything else Swift releases, speculation here is anything but proven. Yet, the truth is not what underpins the music’s core mechanics; Swift teases out the listener’s understanding of lyrical storytelling. Cleverly, she blurs the line between folklore and fact.
Quiet, but glaring references such as “robbers in the east, clowns in west” still deliver delicious tabloid gossip to those in search of it. Even for listeners unfamiliar with Swift’s long track record of celebrity feuds, this subtlety does not escape the drama that once placed her on a dangerously high pedestal.
These digs, rather than acting as an offense, work to strengthen the album into a treatise on reconciliation. She rubs salt into her own wounds, seeking to heal herself instead of dissing others. This is arguably Swift’s strongest asset in the album, not a particular song or riff, but her inclination to broach past contentions without coming off as self-serving.
The winding details of “folklore,” pulled through each song with a shimmering thread, do not seek to unearth Swift’s intricate relationships and struggles outright. Listeners must work to map out her winding antics or, alternatively, they can simply enjoy the music.
Yes, “folklore” trounces her two previous albums both aurally and lyrically, but by and large, Taylor Swift’s greatest success comes through severing the connection between the public and private spheres — a feat unachieved in her work until now. To put it simply, she finally learned how to mind her own business, and fans are satisfied as a result.
The looming trees that haunt the album’s cover do not symbolize a shameless retreat to her former persona. Rather, the sprawling branches underline her growth. Maybe Taylor Swift’s latest album, produced entirely in isolation, bears witness not only to her own resilience, but the listeners’ too.