So here we are again. The world was in the middle of the cruelest summer ever, just staggering through late July, when Taylor Swift decided to make it all so much messier — her specialty. In a move that nobody saw coming, she announced a surprise album on July 23rd, less than a year after her career-capping smash Lover. (A year to the day after she dropped “The Archer.”) Like the rest of us, Swift had to cancel her summer, including her LoverFest shows, which would have been next week. Instead, she spent the quarantine season throwing herself into a new, secret project: her eighth album, Folklore. But the real surprise is the music itself — the most head-spinning, heartbreaking, emotionally ambitious songs of her life.
It’s a total goth-folk album, mostly acoustic guitar and piano, largely in collaboration with the National’s Aaron Dessner. No pop songs at all. It’s as far beyond Lover as Lover was beyond Reputation. She’s always relished her dramatic creative zigzags, but this is easily her most audacious move, full of story-telling depth she’s never come close to before. Some of us have spent years dreaming Taylor would do a whole album like this, but nobody really dreamed it would turn out this great. Her greatest album — so far.
Lover self-consciously summed up the first 30 years of her life, bringing all her musical passions together. But on Folklore, she leaves her comfort zones behind. It sounds like she figured she wasn’t going to be touring these songs live anyway, so she gave up on doing anything for the radio, anything rah-rah or stadium-friendly. She just made some coffee, sat at the piano, and let her mind wander into some dark places. You can picture the candle on her piano flickering as the wax melts over her copy of Wuthering Heights and another song rolls out.
Her sonic chemistry with Dessner is right in every detail; she also teams up with her longtime wingman Jack Antonoff, and duets with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on “Exile.” The vibe is close to “Safe and Sound,” the rootsy gem she did with the Civil Wars for The Hunger Games soundtrack in 2013. As she explains in her Prologue, “In isolation my imagination has run wild and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness. Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory.”
Folklore really feels like the debut album of a whole new Swift — her narrative scope has opened up, with a wide-ranging cast of characters for 17 songs, without a dud. Yet you can still hear that this is the same songwriter who dropped “Last Kiss” on the world 10 July-9ths ago. Here’s a Swift progress report on her quarantine: “I’ve been having a hard time adjusting/I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting/I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back/I have a lot of regrets about that.” The power of her mind.
It’s amusing, in retrospect, how people actually worried that being happy in love might mean Swift would run out of things to write songs about. Not a chance. It turns out to be the other way around, as she lets these characters tell their own stories: A scandalous old widow, hated by her whole town. A scared seven-year-old girl with a traumatized best friend. A ghost watching her enemies at the funeral. Recovering addicts. A fumbling teenage boy. Three of the highlights — “Cardigan,” “August,” and “Betty” — depict the same love triangle, from all three different perspectives. Other songs tell both sides of a story: “The 1” and “Peace,” or “Invisible String” and “The Lakes.”
Folklore hits overdrive halfway through, when it reaches a trilogy of heavy hitters. “August,” the album’s most plainly beautiful ballad, is a summer romance gone wrong: “I can see us tangled in bedsheets/August slipped away like a bottle of wine/Because you were never mine.” “This Is Me Trying” is the disturbingly witty tale of someone pouring her heart out, to keep herself from pouring more whiskey. “Illicit Affairs” is another tale of infidelity: “Take the words for what they are/A dwindling mercurial high/A drug that only worked the first few hundred times.” The tension explodes when she sings, “Don’t call me kid/Don’t call me baby/Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me.”
It’s going to take weeks if not decades to puzzle out all the intricately interwoven narrative details of these songs. “Mirrorball” is about the same nervous dance-floor poseur of “New Romantics,” six years later, except tonight she feels like the disco ball that reflects everyone’s most desperate insecurities. “Mad Woman” expands on the familiar topic of witch hunts, but it also sharpens the feminist rage of “The Man.” “The Last Great American Dynasty” satirizes the upper-crust milieu of “Starlight” when she sings, “There goes the loudest woman this town has ever seen/I had a marvelous time ruining everything.” (Taylor uses the word “marvelous” twice in her career, and both times it’s in songs about the Kennedys? No detail is too tiny for her to plan eight years in advance.)
“Betty” is a first — she sings in the voice of the 17-year-old boy in a Taylor Swift song, reckoning with the fickle behavior detailed by the girls in “Cardigan” and “August.” It takes off from the harmonica solo in Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” — which feels appropriate for the only tale on the album where she goes back to high school. “The Lakes” is a bonus track for vinyl, CD, and (what a flex) cassette, but it’s a must-hear: Taylor walks in the footsteps of William Wordsworth, the Romantic poet who essentially invented the kind of introspective writing she does, wandering the Windermere Peaks of the Lake District.
Remember when she was threatening to spend this year rerecording all her old albums? She does the opposite here — she refuses to repeat her most reliable tricks. So many of the world’s favorite Swift-ian trademarks are missing. No country moves, no synth pop, no first dates, no “Taylor visits a city” song, not even a laugh. The references to fame are few and far between, although they’re tasty when they do show up, as in “Invisible String”: “Bad was the blood of the song in the cab on your first trip to L.A.” She can’t resist adding: “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind/For the boys who broke my heart/Now I send their babies presents.” Touché.
If Lover was the last album of her twenties, Folklore is the first of her thirties. Lover was styled as a well-rounded musical autobiography, with everything from Nashville twang to electro-disco. Folklore takes a completely different approach, yet feels even more intimate, simply because it’s the sound of an artist with absolutely nothing to prove. She’s never sounded this relaxed or confident, never sounded this blasé about winning anyone over. It makes perfect sense that the quarantine brought out her best, since she’s always written so poignantly about isolation and the temptation to dream too hard about other people’s far-away lives. (“Last Kiss” is usually a summer favorite, but this year, “Hope it’s nice where you are” feels a little too close to the bone.) On Folklore, she dreams up a host of characters to keep her company, and stepping into their lives brings out her deepest wit, compassion, and empathy. And it sounds like for Taylor Swift, her best is yet to come.