Taylor Swift steps back from the grandiose highs of pop and breaks multiple records in the process

Photo: Beth Garrabrant

WORDS: Jake Abatan

With 'folklore', Taylor Swift takes a step back from the grandiose highs of pop and embraces a more pared down sound. Swift’s eighth studio album was released this weekend without any of the usual fanfare associated with her releases. Less than 24 hours after being announced via twitter, folklore’s subdued arrival was an early sign that we could expect something more moderate from Swift. But make no mistake, Swift is by no means restrained by this new sound.

Crafted in lockdown with co-writers and producers Aaron Dessner of The National - whose indie-folk aesthetic is all over the 16 tracks - and Jack Antonoff, 'folklore' is built upon minimal but effective instrumentals which give the songwriting room to shine. The piano chords of opener ‘the 1’ loop gracefully, allowing Swift’s lyrics to take centre stage. Swift fantasises about alternative outcomes to a lost love. ‘But we were something don’t you think so? / Roaring twenties, tossing pennies in the pool,' she belts on the chorus. Here, internal rhyme effectively brings life to the limited instrumentals. The next track ‘cardigan’, in which Swift reminisces over a doomed love affair, feels like an evolution of ‘the 1’. Instrumentally, both are built upon a handful of piano chords. However, ‘cardigan’ is far more melodic than the album opener with the piano dictating the pace of the song. Ambient sounds are slowly layered into the track which builds the momentum into a lyrically-driven climax where fantasy and reality blur in lines, such as, ‘I knew I’d curse you for the longest time / Chasin’ shadows in the grocery line.' ‘Cardigan’ is one of the louder songs on 'folklore' but still demonstrates a focus on lyricism and songwriting present throughout the whole project.

Much of the record is constructed as mythical tales, grounded in reality. ‘Seven’, about a childhood friend being abused, explores its subject matter in the fantastical way a seven-year-old Swift might view it. ‘I think your house is haunted/Your dad is always mad and that must be why,' Swift sings. Fantasy is both a way of making sense of the world but also a way of remedying its flaws, ‘…I think you should come live with me / And we can be pirates / Then you won’t have to cry,' the verse continues.

On ‘the last great american dynasty’, the Pennsylvanian singer tells the story of Rhode Island socialite Rebekah Harkness and her home, ‘Holiday House’, which Swift now owns. The 'You Need To Calm Down' hitmaker draws comparisons between herself and Rebekah, women linked by Holiday House who have ‘a marvellous time ruining everything’, as their critics judge them. Swift weaves a sense of cyclical fate into the tale; ‘Holiday House sat quietly on that beach/ Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits/ And then it was bought by me.’

Meanwhile, Swift even gives us the 'indie record that's much cooler than mine' on the ever-contemplative Bon Iver-featuring 'exile'.

As a whole, 'folklore' is an expansive album made under constricting circumstances. Through all of its allusions to ‘what could have been’, 'folklore' reminds us of its own modest production. The effect Covid-19 has had on the arts has been immeasurable, Swift herself was due to be on tour before the pandemic made live performances impossible. Folklore’s existence alludes to other artists being more severely affected by the pandemic, such as when Swift sings on the opener ‘You know the greatest films of all time were never made’. ’folklore' is one of, if not the, best album to come out of lockdown.

Receiving widespread praise from Swifties and critics alike, selling 1.3 million copies worldwide in 24 hours and breaking multiple records - including the global record for first-day album streams on Spotify by a female artist - 'folklore' has more than left its mark.

Rating: 9/10

For Fans Of: Bon Iver, The National

Release Date: 24.07.20