In an open letter to 137 million of her closest friends, Taylor Swift announced the surprise release of her eighth studio album, “folklore,” Thursday morning on Instagram. Eighteen hours later, a catalog of what is arguably her greatest work to date hit streaming platforms, pulsed through the headphones of sleepy-eyed listeners and climbed its way to no. 1 on the Billboard charts.
It’s old news that Swift is a genre bender in her prime, considering her transition from country to pop in 2014, with her fifth studio album “1989,” landed her at the top of the Billboard 200 for 11 consecutive weeks and earned her three Grammy Awards. Yet, it appears no one could have predicted Swift would release a 16-track indie-folk album written, in its entirety, during isolation.
Swift drew inspiration from many of her musical heroes in the making of this album. Vocally raw and laden with strings and harmonicas, “folklore” lacks the synthesized elements of her more recent pop releases.
The album brings in the alternative influences of The National’s Aaron Dessner, who co-wrote and produced 11 of the album’s tracks, Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, known for his collaborations with Swift, and indie genius Justin Vernnon of Bon Iver, who sings alongside Swift on a co-written track.
Swift opens the album with “the 1,” a nostalgic, so-over-it-but-not-really ballad backed by a simple piano melody. The lower octaves of Swift’s vocal range take over in this track, as she fixates on what her life would be like if the song’s subject had been endgame. The track succeeds as an album opener, leading with peppy, attention-commanding lyrics –– “I’m doing good, I’m on some new s---.”
Second on the tracklist is “cardigan.” Evocative and dreamlike, with sultry vocals and punchy rhymes, the track evokes early Lana Del Rey, especially in lines like, “High heels on cobblestones” and “Hand under my sweatshirt / Baby, kiss it better.”
In “the last great american dynasty,” Swift tells the thrilling story of Rebekah Harkness, the previous owner of Swift’s Rhode Island mansion and famed widow of William Hale Harkness, heir to the Standard Oil fortune. The track is upbeat and sharp, with its subject matter falling perfectly in line with the “folklore” theme. If you like the intricate storytelling of “The Lucky One,” from Swift’s 2012 “RED” album, you’ll love this track.
Boasting a heavenly Bon Iver feature, “exile” follows two lovers in the midst of a seemingly inevitable downfall. The track is similar in structure and storyline to Swift’s “The Last Time” feat. Gary Lightbody, a hidden gem on “RED.” Overflowing with lyrical and harmonic mastery from both Swift and vocalist Justin Vernon, “exile” is a standout on the album, with the duo’s voices meshing into one celestial echo.
“my tears ricochet,” the first track Swift wrote for the album, flaunts vocal techniques also reminiscent of Swift’s “RED” era. The song distinguishes itself architecturally as a Jack Antonof production with its percussive layers and dainty synths.
“mirrorball” is glittery and sad, with subdued lyrics and dreamy, ‘70s-inspired echoes. Swift compares herself to a mirrored disco ball, able to reflect the personalities of those around her as a defense mechanism against her insecurities. Swift’s whispered high notes in the chorus pair beautifully with the tambourine and electric guitar riffs, producing somewhat of a “Rumours”-era Fleetwood Mac effect. The verdict: “mirrorball” is the kind of song you would want to dance to at your wedding if it weren’t so dismal.
“seven” is a muddled array of early memories, presented in a manner analogous to the way a child’s mind works. Swift pleads with the subject, a now-distant childhood friend, to remember her the way she was at age 7, swinging high above the Pennsylvania trees. Most notable are the subtle allusions to potential child abuse –– “I think your house is haunted / Your dad is always mad and that must be why.”
It is worth noting that “seven,” like each track on this album, is assumed to be a mixture of true and imaginary character arcs. In the album’s introductory letter, Swift wrote that she found herself telling not only her own stories, but those “of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t.”
Track eight, “august,” reminds me vaguely of Harry Styles’ solo work, with an almost muffled quality that will sound incredible on vinyl. Centered on the aftermath of a summer love that’s still fresh on the mind, “august” is bittersweet and captivating.
An exploration of regret and moving on, “this is me trying” summons a surreal state of vulnerability. The slow percussion balances well with Swift’s toned-down vocals, overall creating an intimate representation of the hurt and fragility expressed in the lyrics.
“illicit affairs” breaks down a deceitful relationship, first from the perspective of a cheating partner and later, that of their significant other. The track is candid and complex, exploring both the compulsive nature of an affair and the magnitude of its casualties. The imagery transported me to secret meetings in beautiful rooms and parking lots, allowing me, for a moment, to indulge in “a dwindling, mercurial high / a drug that only worked the first few hundred times.”
A cathartic exhale after a few too many sad songs, “invisible string,” is like a diary entry on soulmates and the inextricable chain that leads them to one another. The lyrics are poetic and youthful, and Swift’s breathy vocals and organic strumming give the track a folksy sound. Listening to “invisible string” feels like putting on a big, comfy sweater and walking barefoot through the wet grass after a thunderstorm to check the mail.
“mad woman” is a beautiful juxtaposition of anger and calm, with venomous, spiteful lyrics that contrast tastefully with the track’s soft instrumentals. This song wasn’t a replay for me, but I think it will age well.
“betty” is the song I needed in high school but didn’t get until now. With themes of teen angst and first love, this song isn’t one I found relatable or profound, but hearing “Would you tell me to go f--- myself?” from the mouth of my childhood idol is intoxicating.
It took a few listens to grasp the weight of “epiphany,” which appears to depict scenes of war, likely from the perspective of her grandfather landing in Guadalcanal during World War II. The track is toward the top of my list now, notable for its delicate piano accompaniment.
“peace” illustrates some of Swift’s deepest insecurities in her relationship, offering an introspective view into how past trauma still affects her ability to love. Distinguishing itself from other songs on the album, which are retrospective and nostalgic, this one is set in the midst of a breakdown wherein Swift pleads to be assured she is enough.
The album concludes with “hoax,” a heartbreaking end to the tale. Illustrative and haunting, the song takes you to a cliffside, where Swift stands at the edge “screaming ‘give me a reason.’” This song is immaculately vulnerable, and reflects on many of the themes present in the album, including pain, healing and desperation.
Possibly Swift’s most ornate and sonically cohesive album, “folklore” fell from the sky when the world needed it most, with each track telling a remarkably intricate story that blends true experiences with artful surrealism.