At midday on Thursday 23rd July, 137 million people on Instagram were graced with a greyscale collage of one Taylor Swift stood with a meditative attitude in the woods. Surely this could not be the allusive TS8 (the name Swift’s fans have given the album to follow Lover)? After almost 15 years in the industry, is it not unlikely that Swift would break the habit of a career of releasing new music every almost two years in the middle of a pandemic? (Her only blip was the three years between 1989 and Reputation – and we all know what happened there.) Yet, here it was, the thing all “swifties” longed for: a surprise 16 track album called folklore.
As ever with Swift, the new album takes on a new tone, style, and aesthetic so there can be no fear of monotony. folklore is immediately set apart by its genre classification as ‘alternative’. This is new for Swift who until now has stayed firmly within the realms of country and pop. With folklore, it appears that unsurprisingly Swift has managed the shift into the new sphere with apparent ease while retaining the essence of each of her previous albums.
The innocence of her debut and early albums can be seen in ‘Seven’ and ‘Betty’; the satire and lightness of much of 1989 is seen in ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’; while the maturity found in Reputation and Lover is obvious in ‘Hoax’ and ‘My Tears Ricochet’. What is added in Folklore which has lacked coherency in her past albums is the gentle softness of the tracks. There is a muted minimalism created by the flowing piano and murmurs of a guitar that is underpinned by a cohesive beat.
Now that the pop filtering so present in 1989 and Reputation has been removed, the tone of Swift’s voice can be appreciated. Her voice stands up to the rougher tones of Bon Iver in ‘Exile’ and burns with raw emotion in ‘Cardigan’. As a result, we are provided with a lowered transmission – one filled with feeling and intention. Every word is given significance, not in the way that every chorus in the singles of 1989 was meant to lodge itself in your every waking thought, but in a way that suggests an outpouring of the soul, of one trapped with only their own thoughts.
When releasing the album, Swift wrote a letter to go alongside it stating that the songs were written during the vacuum of a cancelled summer and, as a result, of the imaginative overflow of one left to reflect and dream. They are not all directly related to her own life but to those around her, people she has heard of, or those that she has thought up. This is a second diversion for Folklore.
A persona of only writing songs about ex-boyfriends, spurned lovers, and friendship feuds has been constructed around Swift. She wrote ‘Blank Space’ about the character that had been created, and when this wasn’t understood she wrote Reputation as a means of taking back the narrative, and we were graced with ‘Look What You Made Me Do’. While at the time the infamous track claimed that the “old Taylor” was dead, there was little clear evidence of it. Both Reputation and Lover were filled with catchy pop songs that retained the undertone of sincerity found in her storytelling lyricism.
With Folklore, however, it does appear as if the Taylor seen in Tribeca, or the one throwing 4th July parties for a roster of Victoria’s Secret angels really is gone. This album has shown us a Taylor very similar to the one glimpsed in the track ‘Safe and Sound’ from The Hunger Games film. It is a stripped back Taylor who seems to be motivated by the art she can create rather than the followers she can gain, or the money she can make.
This is the final thing which the folklore era changed for us: a lack of fanfare. Swift shocked fans with the surprise announcement, giving them little more than eighteen hours to prepare. Ordinarily, the build-up for her albums goes on for weeks. Fans counted holes in the fence and palm trees on jackets in the hope that they would spot an Easter egg left by Swift which would reveal something about the new album.
Instead, fans were given everything – and it is in this that the essence of folklore can be defined. Swift has removed the album’s interaction with the world; she has created a piece of art and given it to us. There was no lead up, no promotion, no media – just the simple exchange of her music, for the joy of her fans. In this current climate, that seems all too appropriate.
In ‘August’, one of the more upbeat songs of the album, Swift mediates on: “Living for the hope of it all”, and this sums up the album and its release perfectly. Normally her dialogue with the public is so certain, planned and controlled, with the detailed planning of release and almost saturated promotion. With this album however, she was uncertain; there was no strategy, no target audience, no assured future just the desire and hope to express the self. As a result, we have an album with a pure unfathomable depth never so consistently seen from Swift and which will hopefully be prolonged.