Track-by-Track Album Review: folklore, Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift announced her surprise eighth album, folklore on social media on July 24. // Photo Credit: Taylor Swift via Tumblr

Just eleven months after releasing her seventh studio album, Lover, Taylor Swift announced its follow-up, folklore, created in isolation. Sonically, the album couldn’t be more different than its predecessor–while Lover is more mainstream pop, folklore is indie/alternative. Lyrically, the album is both introspective and imaginative, reminding listeners and critics why Swift is a top-performing artist in modern music: with each new body of work Swift releases, her songwriting chops keep growing more refined. Here’s my full track-by-track breakdown:

1. “the 1” (Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner)

Swift opens her eighth studio album with a catchy yet wistful look back on lost love with “the 1.” Production-wise, the track features piano, string, and percussion sounds as well as a simple vocal (a stark pivot from Swift’s more vocoder-driven songs such as reputation‘s “Delicate,” 2017). Lyrically, Swift keeps getting sharper, using creative metaphors such as “roaring twenties” and “Rosé” to describe the relationship, which may or may not be derived from personal experience. (Note: While Swift has shared some of the inspiration behind her new work, she does not indicate if all the tracks on folklore are stories taken directly from her life, leaving the listener to draw their own conclusions).

Standout Lyrics: I have this dream you’re doing cool sh-t/Having adventures on your own/You meet some woman on the Internet and take her home/We never painted by the numbers, baby/But we were making it count/You know the greatest loves of all time are over now

2. “cardigan” (Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner)

The first single from folklore, “cardigan” is also one-third of a trifecta that Swift refers to as the “teenage love triangle.” (The other two tracks are “august” and “betty”). Swift continues the theme of young love on “cardigan” and vocally, sounds reminiscent of Lana Del Rey on unarguably one of the album’s most memorable tracks.

Standout Lyrics: But I knew you’d linger like a tattoo kiss/I knew you’d haunt all of my what-ifs/The smell of smoke would hang around this long/’Cause I knew everything when I was young/I knew I’d curse you for the longest time/Chasing shadows in the grocery line/I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired/And you’d be standing in my front porch light/And I knew you’d come back to me/You’d come back to me/And you’d come back to me/And you’d come back

3. “the last great american dynasty” (Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner)

Swift channels the likes of music greats Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan on one of folklore’s most storytelling-driven tracks, “the last great american dynasty.” The song is a profile of Rebekah Harkness, the previous owner of Swift’s Rhode Island home. One detail worth noting is that Harkness dyed her neighbor’s cat green, not a dog, as Swift alleges. If changing this detail is intentional–and it may be, as Swift is a cat lover–it’s very clever and on point with the overall theme of the album. (The term folklore represents stories that are typically passed down by word of mouth, meaning smalls details may unintentionally be miscontrued or changed as shared among generations).

Standout Lyrics: They say she was seen on occasion/Pacing the rocks staring out at the midnight sea/And in a feud with her neighbor/She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green/Fifty years is a long time/Holiday House sat quietly on that beach/Free of women with madness/Their men and bad habits, and then it was bought by me

4. “exile” featuring bon iver (Taylor Swift, William Bowery, Justin Vernon)

Swift teams up with Justin Vernon of indie folk band, Bon Iver to trade verses on the only duet on folklore. Vernon and Swift’s voices pair well on this emotional ballad about “an exiled man walking the bluffs[…]wondering how it all went so terribly, terribly wrong,” as Swift shares in the liner notes of the album. In addition to adding his vocals, Vernon also helped Swift write the song with William Bowery (believed to be a pseudonym for English actor, Joe Alwyn, Swift’s boyfriend of nearly four years).

Standout Lyrics: I think I’ve seen this film before/And I didn’t like the ending/I’m not your problem anymore/So who am I offending now?/You were my crown/Now I’m in exile seein’ you out/I think I’ve seen this film before/So I’m leavin’ out the side door

5. “my tears ricochet” (Taylor Swift)

Swift describes this track as focusing on “an embittered tormentor showing up at the funeral of his fallen object of obsession” in her liner notes. However, upon further listening, the funeral concept can be read as a metaphor detailing the public incident in which Swift’s former label president, Scott Borchetta sold her master recordings to her long-time foe, Scooter Braun (the “stolen lullabies” lyric gives credence to this). This track is also one of the most emotional on folklore.

Standout Lyrics: And I can go anywhere I want/Anywhere I want/Just not home/And you can aim for my heart, go for blood/But you would still miss me in your bones/And I still talk to you/When I’m screaming at the sky/And when you can’t sleep at night/You hear my stolen lullabies

6. “mirrorball” (Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff)

One of the more enigmatic tracks on folklore, “mirrorball” appears to be a commentary on fame, reinvention, and love in the spotlight (see lyrics such as “I can change everything about myself to fit in,” “I’m still trying everything to keep you looking at me,” and “You are not like the regulars”). The production is soft and calming rather than bombastic, which lends itself well to its introspective lyrical content.

Standout Lyrics: And they called off the circus/Burned the disco down/When they sent home the horses/And the rodeo clowns/I’m still on that tightrope/I’m still trying everything to get you laughing at me/I’m still a believer but I don’t know why/I’ve never been a natural/All I do is try, try, try/I’m still on that trapeze/I’m still trying everything/To keep you looking at me

7. “seven” (Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner)

Written from the perspective of a seven-year-old, Swift ruminates on childhood, innocence, and abuse on “seven.” This track is vocally one of Swift’s best on folklore and features some beautiful instrumentals. While Swift hasn’t shared much about this particular track, it can be assumed she is singing about a friend she knew as a child living in Pennsylvania (“I was high in the sky with Pennsylvania under me”).

Standout Lyrics: And I’ve been meaning to tell you/I think your house is haunted/Your dad is always mad and that must be why/And I think you should come live with/Me and we can be pirates/Then you won’t have to cry/Or hide in the closet/And just like a folk song/Our love will be passed on

8. “august” (Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff)

The second of the trifecta of teenage love songs, “august” details a summer fling that isn’t meant to last from the point of view of the other girl. Swift’s ability to create an entire storyline based on fictional characters is incredible; her imagination is sweeping.

Standout Lyrics: But I can see us/Lost in the memory/August slipped away into a moment in time/’Cause it was never mine/And I can see us twisted in bedsheets/August sipped away/Like a bottle of wine/’Cause you were never mine

9. “this is me trying” (Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff)

Another one of folklore‘s more enigmatic tracks, “this is me trying” also appears to be a commentary on fame and directly references the 2016 events Swift eventually used to give birth to reputation (Tip: Listen closely to this song’s entire first verse). While melancholy and emotionally heavy in nature, this song reinforces the confessional quality of Swift’s songwriting; she is not afraid to go to dark–and at times–painful places.

Standout Lyrics: They told me all of my cages were mental/So I got wasted like all my potential/And my words shoot to kill when I’m mad/I have a lot of regrets about that/I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere/Fell behind all my classmates and I ended up here/Pourin’ out my heart to a stranger/But I didn’t pour the whiskey

10. “illicit affairs” (Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff)

Swift sings about the emotional fallout of a forbidden love on “illicit affairs.” Lyrically, this is not only one of Swift’s strongest tracks on folklore but in her entire catalogue as well. (Does any other modern songwriter use words like mercurial in their lyrics)?

Standout Lyrics: And you wanna scream/Don’t call me kid/Don’t call me baby/Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me/You showed me colors you know I can’t see with anyone else/Don’t call me kid/Don’t call me baby/Look at this idiotic fool that you made me/You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else/And you know damn well/For you I would ruin myself…a million little times

11. “invisible string” (Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner)

Swift sings about fate and all the eerie coincidences–or non-coincidences–that have brought her and current boyfriend, Alwyn together. Swift also harkens back to reputation track, “Delicate” with the dive bar reference.

Standout Lyrics: Bad was the blood of the song in the cab on your first trip to LA/You ate at my favorite spot for dinner/Bold was the waitress on our three-year trip getting lunch down by the Lakes/She said I looked like an American singer

12. “mad woman” (Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner)

Swift describes this track as “a misfit widow getting gleeful revenge on the town that cast her out” in her liner notes. However, this track can be read similarly to “my tears ricochet;” Swift is again calling out the players involved in the sale of her masters (i.e. Scooter Braun and his wife, Yael Cohen).

Standout Lyrics: Now I breathe flames each time I talk/My cannons all firing at your yacht/They say “move on”/But you know I won’t/And women like hunting witches, too/Doing your dirtiest work for you/It’s obvious that wanting me dead has really brought you two together

13. “epiphany” (Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner)

Swift parallels war with the fight against COVID-19 on “epiphany.” Her grandfather–who landed at Guadalcanal in 1942–served as the inspiration for the song.

Standout Lyrics: Something med school/Did not cover/Someone’s daughter/Someone’s mother/Holds your hand through plastic now/Doc, I think she’s crashin’ out/And some things you just can’t speak about

14. “betty (Taylor Swift and William Bowery)

The final song in the teenage love triangle trifecta that also includes “cardigan” and “august,” Swift steps into the persona of a 17-year-old boy to ask forgiveness of the girl he wronged. It’s here that listeners learn the names of the characters: James and Betty. (Note: No name is provided for the girl James cheated on Betty with). The track is a throwback to Swift’s early days in country music–harmonica anyone?–and was also written with the help of William Bowery (Recall who fans think he is here).

Standout Lyrics: So, I showed up at your party/Yeah, I showed up at your party/Yeah, I showed up at your party/Will you have me?/Will you love me?/Will you kiss me on the porch in front of all your stupid friends?/If you kiss me/Will it be just like I dreamed it? Will it patch your broken wings?/I’m only seventeen/I don’t know anything/But I know I miss you/Standing in your cardigan/Kissing in my car again/Stopped at a streetlight, you know I miss you

15. “peace” (Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner)

Swift wonders if she and boyfriend, Alwyn will ever fully be content in their relationship on “peace,” a piano-centric ballad where she shines vocally.

Standout Lyrics: And you know that I’d/Swing with you for the fences/Sit with you in the trenches/Give you my wild, give you a child/Give you the silence that only comes when two people understand each other/Family that I chose now that I see your brother as my brother/Is it enough?/But there’s robbers to the east/Clowns to the West/I’d give you my sunshine/Give you my best/But the rain is always gonna come/If you’re standing with me

16. “hoax” (Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner)

Swift closes out folklore with “hoax,” a melancholy ballad that examines the inevitable difficulties that follow romance. This one also appears to be autobiographical in nature, noting references to her New York residence and disappearance from the spotlight in 2016. The track is lyrically rich and pairs well with the piano and strings featured.

Standout Lyrics: You know I left a part of me back in New York/You knew the hero died, so what’s the movie for/You knew it still hurts underneath my scars/From when they pulled me apart/You knew the password, so I let you in the door/You knew you won, so what’s the point of keeping score?/You knew it still hurts underneath my scars/From when they pulled me apart/But what you did was just as dark/Darling, this was just as hard/As when they pulled me apart

17. “the lakes” (bonus track) (Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff)

Swift expresses her desire for privacy on “the lakes,” a bonus track only available on the deluxe edition of folklore. The track is without question one of Swift’s most lyrically sophisticated to date and makes references to Wordsworth and the Romantic poets. All Swift wants is some time with her muse, free of drama and complications.

Standout Lyrics: I want auroras and sad prose/I want to watch wisteria grow right over my bare feet/’Cause I haven’t moved in years/And I want you right here/A red rose grew up out of ice frozen ground/With no one around to tweet it/While I bathe in cliff-side pools/With my calamitous love and insurmountable grief

Swift has done well with folklore thus far. The album–released barely a month ago–has already become “the fastest album to sell one million units in the United States in 2020.” Swift has also broken the record for “most Hot 100 hits among women” with folklore, according to Billboard.

Watching Swift evolve and experiment from album to album is interesting; folklore reinforces that she can switch genres and continue to make great music.

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