‘folklore:’ fantastical little tales of love and loss

August 28, 2020

Taylor Swift’s “folklore” feels like that rare beam of sunlight that you quietly appreciate in the midst of a brewing thunderstorm—a story told in a small bedroom with the curtains drawn to keep out the rain and lightning. But outside of just feelings alone, Swift’s “folklore” is an absolute lyrical and musical masterpiece that has rightfully climbed to the top of Billboard’s Charts. 

Announced and released on July 24, Swift swept away countless listeners—both longtime and new fans—with an album composed in a time of quarantine and social distancing. In a total of 16 tracks, “folklore” ventures away from Swift’s previous pop aesthetic and instead explores the softer, quieter folk/indie genre. As a result, Swift’s songwriting comes through the strongest in this album, accompanied by the gentler sounds of acoustic guitar and piano that comes with the territory.

True to the album’s name, “folklore” focuses on fictional stories: a child comforting a traumatized friend, an angry wife discovering her husband’s affair, a man wandering in a hopeless exile and, recurring throughout the album, the story of teenagers caught in a love triangle that doesn’t feel like something out of an overrated CW show. Memorable lines abound in this album, weaving the songs together into beautiful, multi-faceted tales.

One particularly notable tale takes form in the fourth track “exile,” a collaboration between Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Swift. Vernon’s low, deep tones contrast sharply with Swift’s own higher pitch, the two voices spinning a tale of lovers separating and seeing each other from across a room. There is clear anguish on both sides. With haunting lyrics such as “I think I’ve seen this film before, and I didn’t like the ending” and “you’re not my homeland anymore, so what am I defending now?,” “exile” stands out as the emotional punch of the album.

Listeners get the first hint of Swift’s storytelling abilities in “cardigan,” the first perspective of the love triangle of “folklore.” Starting off with soft tones, Swift spins the tale of someone welcoming back, to put it bluntly, a cheater. Her voice grows stronger, louder with the third verse as her character finds the chastened love back at her porch: “I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired, and you’d be standing in front porch light, and I knew you’d come back to me.”

The response to “cardigan” takes form in “betty,” a guitar- and harmonica-dominant tune reminiscent of Swift’s earlier country days. Listeners find themselves in the perspective of the one who hurt the narrator of “cardigan,” and Swift paints a picture of a 17-year-old apologizing. The chorus, an out-of-breath rush of lyrics—“Would you have me? Would you want me? Would you tell me to go f*ck myself or lead me to the garden?”—mimics the speech of any teenager stumbling for the right words. While listeners can’t quite forget what this narrator did to hurt the protagonist of “cardigan,” they still find themselves feeling a bit hopeful and cheerful for this particular character, especially when Swift changes the key at the end of the song to signal the eventual making-up of the two lovers. And, of course, the outro—“standing in your cardigan”—gives the listeners the sense that perhaps this couple managed after all.

The third perspective of the love triangle, and perhaps the most intriguing of them all, takes form in “august”: a summer-y, breathy masterpiece that recalls memories of a summer love that wasn’t quite meant to be. Swift explores the perspective of the final member of the love triangle, the one who the narrator of “betty” had cheated the narrator of “cardigan” with. Despite the cheerful strums and upbeat drum in the background, the lyrics are wistful, bittersweet: “so much for summer love and saying ‘us’ ‘cause you weren’t mine to lose.” Here, listeners find themselves once more in an interesting perspective of Swift’s creation—and instead of bashing the “other woman” of the relationship, we find ourselves sympathizing with the situation. In that way, “august” signals a new level of maturity in Swift’s songwriting tradition: the delve into a separate perspective rather than villainizing it brings out the complexities of the story, therefore making this tale an interesting one to behold.

But no matter the content of the songs themselves, Swift’s storytelling remains true: listeners are immersed in the fantastical little tales of love and loss, and for that, the songs of “folklore” will be replayed and re-listened by those always searching for a good story. 

Menu Title