‘Folklore’ is Taylor Swift Like We’ve Never Heard From Her Before

What happens when you put Taylor Swift with a burst of creativity and imagination in an enclosed space for a period of time? The answer, apparently, is Folklore, her 8th full studio album, just shy of one year after last year’s much-anticipated Lover.

Image from the ‘Cardigan’ music video by Taylor Swift

When the announcement for Folklore dropped last July 24th, less than a day before its release, no one could have possibly, possibly prepared for its coming. This is, after all, coming from a woman who has built her place at the top of the pop music canon, whose album release cycles have become entire phases on their own, usually taking several months up to a year of teasers, pre-album lead singles, and the odd Easter egg for fans to decipher.

And indeed, if anything, that might have just been as much indication for how much of a departure Folklore is from her past releases. At times, the album sounds like it could pass of as a darker B-side to the pastel-toned shimmery-ness of last year’s Lover, and yet there are also hints of the self-referential maturity offered in 2017’s Reputation, except it’s far more believable now — this is most particular in the lead single ‘Cardigan’, where Swift darkly laments her own place in the cultural landscape over the years (“When you are young they assume you know nothing”) and then — just a few verses later — declares “I knew everything when I was young”.

This is, after all, Swift purely making music just for herself, which might just be when she’s at her best. Forget all the feuds, shoutouts, or namedrops — Folklore showcases Swift at her most heartbreakingly honest, mature, and self-aware, taking accountability for downfalls and failed relationships — even more so than in Lover. And although it’s not filled with as much sonic variety as that album, or indeed, even Reputation, there is an inherent cohesiveness that runs all throughout Folklore, which is credit in part to collaborations with the National’s Aaron Dessner, along with other long-time collaborators, and Swift lends her sensibilities to a more mellow, folksy sound made mostly of acoustic guitars and pianos and soft synths that altogether elevate the raspier, more vulnerable facets of her vocals that may have previously been lost to the finely-tuned productions of her past recent albums. If anything, Folklore feels like a marker and touch point for Swift’s incredible growth as an artist, especially when you consider the fact that her career began with what were quintessentially teenage diary entries set against vibrant, plucky country music.

Over the years of the Taylor Swift discography canon, there have infamously been one or two less-promoted tracks that eventually become fan favorites — see: “All Too Well”, “Cornelia Street”, “Last Kiss”, the list goes on — and essentially, Folklore is Taylor Swift in full-on throttle at this particular regard, in the sense that every track is steep with depth and want and longing, and heartbreak and honesty and nostalgia, that all the emotion that the album evokes is almost overwhelming. In essence, this isn’t Swift of the sparkly, ultra-catchy pop hooks that she has long made a chart-topping career out of, nor are there any call-outs hidden in lyrics for listeners to uncover. Folklore is simply what it is, and what it is is a collection of music from an artist with a gift for storytelling and a talent for evoking tunes on a guitar and piano.

And true to that, in essence, Folklore is filled to the brim with Swift’s sensibilities, from her signature uncanny ability to take small moments and make them feel like entire epics, and yet also manages to feel so peaceful and intimate, the listener can almost visualize Swift alone at home at her piano, churning out tune after tune. In retrospect, we’d always been aware of her prowess as a once-in-a-generation storyteller-lyricist-composer, but she almost unbelievably surpasses herself even with Folklore, as she throws caution to the wind and creates a collection of music that has no regard for radio trends. Indeed, if questions had previously been raised about her creative ability as one of the most widely-covered and controversial pop stars in the world, this album might just be the one to dispel such doubts — it has enough of her signature lyricism to hook current fans, and is masterfully crafted enough to captivate new listeners and skeptics.

At its core, Folklore is undeniably an entirely new sound from what we’re used to from Taylor Swift the country-sweetheart-turned-pop-superstar, but it also feels inherently familiar and intimate, perhaps more than anything reminding us that Swift’s career actually began in isolation, with just a pen and a guitar and a piano, creating new music in solitude to offer to the world. Folklore feels so overwhelmingly raw and new, it could almost pass as a debut album from a Taylor Swift in some other alternate universe. Except it isn’t, and thank goodness for that.

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