Taylor Swift: Folklore Review
A surprise ‘August’ in July.
BY: NICK LEVINE
This time around, the old Taylor isn't dead—she's just wrapped herself in a cozy cable knit cardigan and spent some time brooding in the woods. Swift's eighth album Folklore, which dropped Friday less than 24 hours after it was announced, is the Grammy-winning singer’s most subdued and, in many ways, most accomplished yet. It’s also, perhaps, less autobiographical than her past classics Red and 1989. “I found myself not only writing my own stories," Swift notes in a personal essay accompanying Folklore, "but also writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t.”
It’s definitely a record that pairs well with bourbon and regret, and here’s our track-by-track review.
The mellow opener introduces us to Folklore’s indie-folk sound (produced mainly by The National’s Aaron Dessner) and Swift’s new, more ruminative songwriting. It’s basically a ‘what might have been’ song with Swift reminiscing about sipping rosé with an ex’s “chosen family”—not the last time this album will nod toward queerness. Did I gaze wistfully in the distance and think about past loves while a single tear ran down my cheek? Naturally.
The album's lead single isn't its best song—not by a long way—but its restrained electronica is seductive enough. Swift’s vocal cadence recalls Lana Del Rey and so do her lyrics, especially when she gets misty-eyed about watching the object of her affection "dancing in your Levi's, drunk under a streetlight." Still, the song’s classic Swift line is sure to be “you drew stars around my scars”—you can already get it on a pullover from her official store.
Last great american dynasty
Folklore glides into full-on bop territory with this brilliantly written song about Rebekah Harkness, an eccentric and grotesquely wealthy Rhode Island socialite who "filled the pool with champagne" and "blew through the money on the boys and the ballet." (That’s starting her own Manhattan-based ballet company, obviously.) Swift now owns Harkness’s beachside mansion, Holiday House in Watch Hill, R.I., and should be an executive producer if Ryan Murphy turns “The Last Great American Dynasty” into a miniseries starring Jessica Lange.
Swift will win plenty of ‘cred’ for working with indie-folk heroes Bon Iver, but don't let that put you off their duet. On this slow-building beauty, she and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon play former lovers reconnecting awkwardly and bitterly. "I can see you starin', honey, like he's just your understudy," Swift sings as he sizes up her new partner. The vocal overdubs at the climax are exquisite.
My tears ricochet
Swift says this sad, languid ballad is about an “embittered tormentor showing up at the funeral of his fallen object of obsession." Both the melody and lyrics are excellent: when Swift sings "and if I'm dead to you, why are you at the wake?," it's a reminder of her gift for shady wordplay. The rumor that it’s about her former record label? I cannot confirm or deny.
Shimmering as its title suggests, "Mirrorball" is a tender character study of an insecure woman who doesn't show her own personality, but instead reflects what those around her want to see. "I've never been a natural, all I do is try, try, try," Swift sings, making her pitiable and relatable at the same time.
One of the album's most straightforward moments is also among its most resonant. Here, Swift looks back at a childhood friendship while acknowledging, elegantly, that growing up necessitates a loss of innocence. "Please picture me in the weeds," she sings yearningly. "Before I learned civility I used to scream ferociously, any time I wanted."
This lovely look-back at a summer romance has echoes of Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me,” which was the first song Swift ever learned to play on guitar. "August slipped away like a bottle of wine, ‘cause you were never mine," she sings with fond melancholy.’ It’s a totally enchanting moment.
This is me trying
Folklore hits a new peak—no mean feat, given the quality of what comes before—with this dazzling ballad about a woman trying to atone for past mistakes in a relationship. "I just wanted you to know that this is me trying," Swift sings regretfully, before adding a slightly desperate plea: "At least I'm trying." The counter-melody Swift brings in for that second line could be the album's most sublime moment.
Don’t be fooled by this song’s somewhat prim title, which sounds like it belongs on a tacky old romance novel. Swift’s “Illicit Affairs” is a sharply observed tale of adultery which features the impeccable couplet: "What started in beautiful rooms / Ends with meetings in parking lots."
Another stunning song on which Swift ponders the idea that she and Joe Alwyn—her British actor boyfriend—were meant to be together all along. The part where a British waitress tells Swift she looks like “an American singer" is priceless. The part where she makes peace with "the boys who broke my heart" is even better. When Swift sings "now I send their babies presents," your heart will melt—and Joe Jonas's ears will be burning.
All prickly percussion and ominous piano, this is probably Folklore's darkest track. According to Swift, it's the story of a “misfit widow getting gleeful revenge on the town that cast her out,” which means it might be another song inspired by Rebekah Harkness. Either way, there's no doubting its feminist message. When Swift sings "no one likes a mad woman—you made her like that," it's really patriarchal society that she's blaming.
This atmospheric ballad is notable for mentioning Swift's grandfather, who served in the Guadalcanal campaign during World War II. It's not a standout, but could probably soundtrack a 'patient clinging to life' montage on Grey's Anatomy.
With its wistful harmonica intro, this is Folklore’s second track to wink at Sixpence None the Richer. More interestingly, it's the one LGBTQ fans are claiming as a queer love story. The lyrics don't make it explicitly clear—and even if they did, that wouldn't mean Swift was writing about herself, since Folklore has several character songs. But there's definitely something that feels queer about this tale of love, longing, and skateboarding past the girl you like's house. To be honest, it’s a shame Swift’s website isn’t also selling a “Betty” pullover.
This contemplative number contains Folklore's second reference to the inherently queer idea of chosen family. It’s a ballad of romantic insecurity, essentially, on which Swift asks her partner if everything she could give him—even a child—would be enough “if I could never give you peace." Because dating a superstar ain't easy, you know.
This contemplative number contains Folklore's second reference to the inherently queer idea of chosen family. It’s a ballad of romantic insecurity, essentially, on which Swift asks her partner if everything she could give him—even a child—would be enough “if I could nev”