Taylor Swift’s new album sounds just like its title, folklore – both in the way that word rustles at your ear (bewitchingly gentle) and in the word’s meaning (full of remembrance, atmosphere, and stories which linger in your mind). In her liner notes, Swift says that writing the album presented a “way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory” during isolation.
She worked with several of her “heroes” to bring folklore into being: The National musician Aaron Dessner (who co-wrote or produced 11 of the 16 tracks), Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (who co-wrote and appears on exile) and producer Jack Antonoff (he who laid the keystones of Lorde’s career, and whom Swift describes as “basically musical family at this point”).
Here are our favourites of the Nashville singer-songwriter’s treasure-chockers eighth studio album.
Driven by plaintive piano chords and a sweetly sparse beat, album opener the 1 is about a love that didn’t work out, but it’s calmly resigned rather than vitriolic – a recurring thematic vein for Tay across this record.
This song is the sound of Taylor’s headcheck as she changes lanes onto Highway Del Rey; there’s more than a few similarities to Lana’s cinematic Americana style, with a muted beat, strings, and gracefully lazy slurs between notes – along with a super intimate, breathy delivery. “Dancing in your Levis, drunk under a street light” is a lyric that could have been torn from any of Del Rey’s dreamiest cuts.
the last great american dynasty
Decadence and hedonism prevail in this tale of a wealthy woman living up to and exceeding the pearl-clutching expectations of the Joneses – and it’s based on a true story! The song is about the former owner of Swift’s mansion in the affluent beachside neighbourhood of Watch Hill, Rhode Island: a kooky heiress named Rebekah Harkness, who was known for her extravagant spending, arts patronage, and insistence on being weird. Top points to Swift for using one of the best adjectives out, ‘gauche’ (“The wedding was charming, if a little gauche/ There’s only so far new money goes”).
exile feat. Bon Iver
“I can see you standing, honey/ With his arms around your body/ Laughing, but the joke’s not funny at all,” begins Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. His baritone leads us through piano and strings, before his signature delicate vibrato comes in to offer some jewelled harmonies to Taylor’s melody.
my tears ricochet
Historically, Swift has placed her most emotional tracks at number five on her albums’ tracklists; my tears ricochet continues the trend with a biblical voice harmony that mimics an organ, while the spectre of Imogen Heap’s Hide & Seek vocoder effect floats behind some cracking lyrics: “If I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake, cursing my name?”
Mirrorball centres around an admirable metaphor. We’ll let the lyrics do the talking:
“I’m a mirrorball – I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight/
When I break, it’s in a million pieces.”
The fabulous Invisible String uses an intriguing lyrical structure, which sounds a bit like an old poem or nursery rhyme (think This Is The House That Jack Built), wherein the effect of something comes before the something. For example: “Bad was the blood”, “Bold was the waitress”, and “Cold was the steel.” That last example goes on to possibly reference Swift’s relationship with ex-boyfriend Joe Jonas, and his new marriage with actress Sophie Turner along with their pregnancy: “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind for the boys who broke my heart/ Now I send their babies presents.”
A woman can be driven to madness by assertions she is mad, and will end up unleashing on the hand that supposedly feeds her in a complicated cycle of abuse. “You poke the bear until her claws come out/ And you find something to wrap your noose around,” attests Taylor, adding: “Every time you call me crazy I get more crazy.” The message recalls the press’s treatment of Britney Spears during her 2007 nadir, but perhaps Taylor is alluding to the well-publicised battle she fought with label exec Scooter Braun, for ownership over her master recordings.
Opening with hushed pipe organ chords blurred together in a gorgeous wash, epiphany presents as a tribute to medical workers who must endure unspeakably heartwrenching things which “med school did not cover” – from early war times (“Crawling up the beaches now, ‘Sir I think he’s bleeding out’”) to our current pandemic frontline medical workers. The beautifully bittersweet arrangements are a triumph, as is Swift’s message of solidarity. (Extra Easter egg: Swift’s grandfather served in the Battle of Guadalcanal [Solomon Islands] in 1942, and you can see a photograph of him in military uniform in the video clip for cardigan.)
Folklore by Taylor Swift is out on CD August 7, with vinyl out November 27. Both are available for pre-order at JB Hi-Fi now.