Taylor Swift’s new album folklore is about the invisible strings that that tie us together and the stories that make us who we are today.
There are two things that the Covid-19 pandemic has given us this summer: lots more time inside to curl up with a book, and ample opportunity to reflect on the ghosts of girlfriends and boyfriends past. And so it’s not surprising that literary references, history and old lovers dominate Taylor Swift’s surprise new album, folklore, released on 24 July. Muted piano and strings replace the cheesy pop of 2019’s Lover, a paired back aesthetic more suited to the climate in which this record was released. Swift wrote and recorded the album in isolation in collaboration with the National’s Aaron Dessner, Bon Iver, William Bowery and longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff, and the 16-track release is an intoxicating collection of stories about the invisible strings that tie us all together.
In album opener ‘the 1’, 1920s motifs abound as Swift reflects on what might have been: “Roaring twenties, tossing pennies in the pool / And if my wishes came true / It would have been you.” The 1974 film adaptation of the classic ‘roaring twenties’ novel The Great Gatsby showcases the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island in the place of New York’s Long Island. Swift reflects on the history of her own Rhode Island mansion aka “Holiday House” in ‘the last great american dynasty’, telling the story of the property’s former owner, the ‘mad woman’ Rebekah Harkness. The feminist themes of the 2020 Taylor Swift: Miss Americana documentary film manifest in ‘mad woman’, which alludes to the famous feminist work by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman In The Attic, as well as in the nostalgic childhood song ‘seven’, which harks back to a time where before she “learned civility / I used to scream ferociously”. In both ‘mad woman’ and the documentary, Swift speaks candidly about internalized misogyny and her ongoing feud with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.
The roaring 20s motifs don’t end there, though; it’s hard not to see Nick, Gatsby and Daisy as the “masquerade revellers” in the achingly beautiful track ‘mirrorball’, where Swift sings about living life in the public eye and being something beautiful but fragile, like a disco ball with “shattered edges”. As those who have seen the documentary will know, Swift has struggled with being a woman in the music industry who sky-rocketed to fame after signing a record deal when she was just 15. She’s been the victim of both sexual assault and intellectual theft — and so it’s no wonder that she’s left feeling a little fragile.
The complications brought by this same fame also dominate ‘peace’, which reflects on the difficulty of having a limelight relationship: “The rain is always gonna come if you’re standing with me”. While on Lover, Taylor Swift proclaimed she would marry her partner with ‘Paper Rings’ if she had to, on folklore she questions whether it is fair to ask someone to commit to her when she lives such a public life — as it will never be peaceful. Throughout the new album, Swift continues to reflect on her relationship with the British actor, Joe Alwyn. There is even fan speculation that William Bowery, who co-wrote two songs on the album, is in fact Alwyn — who Swift has been self-isolating with during the pandemic. The biographical gems that Swifties have come to relish with each new release are there in abundance, especially on ‘invisible string’, where she refers to her partner’s former job at Snogs’ Frozen Yoghurt and references the dive bar where their relationship took flight (see 2017’s ‘Delicate’). In the chorus Swift references the closing line of Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises as she reflects on idealism and fate: “And isn’t it just so pretty to think / All along there was some / Invisible string / Tying you to me?”.
But it’s not just ‘20s literature Swift’s been reading during the pandemic. The Peter Pan link works well with the youthful naivety at the heart of ‘cardigan’ and the accompanying music video portrays Swift wearing a nightgown like the children who are swept up into J. M. Barrie’s fantastical fantasy land. One of three love triangle songs told from different perspectives at different points in time, Swift sings in a husky Lana Del Rey-esque tone about ‘James’ — who chases two girls and loses one. She sings: “I knew you / Tried to change the ending / Peter losing Wendy”, reflecting the immaturity of a boy who never grows up.
Infidelity is a recurring theme across the release, with the appeal of ‘illicit affairs’ described as a “dwindling mercurial high” that takes the participants from beautiful rooms to “meetings in parking lots”. While ‘august’ is about being the other woman, drunk on lust — “August sipped away like a bottle of wine / Cause you were never mine” — ‘betty’ is the tale of the woman who is wronged. The track describes the aftermath once the teens return to school and James begs for forgiveness, claiming his youthfulness as an excuse: “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything / But I know I miss you”. Anyone who has ever cheated or been cheated on will feel their heart wrench with the lines: “The worst that I ever did / was what I did to you”. It’s a callback to Speak Now, with harmonicas and a talk-singing vocal delivery as well as a similar motif to the album’s titular track which features a wedding crasher: “I showed up at your party / Will you have me?”. It’s hard not to make comparisons to the men and women who have been showing up in their exes’ DMs uninvited over lockdown to apologise for the way they behaved in the past.
This three-part story resists the biographical interpretation that fans are encouraged to make throughout the singer’s discography, with Swift writing in the album liner notes: “The lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible.”
It’s not just literature that Swift uses to explore the often equivocal relationship between fact and fiction in her music. Cinema has always been a go-to concept for Swift, perhaps no more so than in 2010’s ‘If This Was a Movie, from Speak Now’. Her duet with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon in ‘exile’ references knowing how a relationship will inevitably end with the lines: “I think I’ve seen this film before / And I didn’t like the ending”, and on ‘this is me trying’ she describes a memory of a relationship as a highlights reel — like Lorde’s “supercut of us”: “You’re a flashback in a film reel on the one screen in my town”. In ‘my tears ricochet’, which Swift said during a livestream for the ‘cardigan’ premiere was about “a lost romance and why young love is often fixed so permanently in our memories”, there’s an epic quality which accurately reflects the adolescent tendency to think of your first heartbreak as the all-consuming end of the world: “the battleships will sink beneath the waves”.
‘epiphany’ has a similarly epic quality, framing the Covid-19 pandemic as a war film, taking place on the battleground of desperation. The track is a powerful meditation on trauma, which draws on Swift’s grandfather’s experience in the military as well as the difficult experience of being a frontline worker in a global health crisis. This deeply moving track reflects Swift’s anxiety about her mother’s immunocompromised status. As the singer declares “some things you just can’t speak about” it’s hard not to think about her January announcement that her mother had been diagnosed with a brain tumour, and how awful it must be for all families — famous or otherwise — who have had to endure the complexities that the pandemic has brought to those who were already dealing with family and friends in ill-health.
‘hoax’ ends the album on a similarly sombre note: “Don’t want any other shade of blue / No other sadness in the world would do”. It seems to be about both parties being at fault in a relationship “what you did was just as dark”, hinting at some form of transgression, perhaps infidelity. Another cinematic reference comes as Swift questions “You knew the hero died so what’s the movie for?”. We watch movies that have been adapted from books where we know the ending because the story still manages to speak to the universal human experience and move us. In exactly the same way, we continue to listen to Taylor Swift because she’s shown us again and again that she can transport us back to our freshman year, where somebody told us they loved us, and we believed them. But with this latest album, she’s taken the camera into her own hands and shown us new angles, giving us different sides to the same old story. We can see that relationships are made up of two, sometimes three or more constituent parts and all it takes is one small change to the cut the invisible string that binds us to those we love. As folklore loops back round to album opener ‘the 1’, we finally understand the singer’s desire to ask her former love: “If one thing had been different / Would everything be different today?”