When Taylor Swift writes songs the usual response is to go to Dylanologist levels of reading and interpretation to figure out who’s the subject of the veiled song. Which relationship went bad? Who’s the new significant other? Swift has both acknowledged the semi-autobiographical nature of many of her songs, while also noting the taxing nature of having the songs so intently scrutinized for every little clue. On Folklore she not only spurred the traditional release cycle but also stepped outside the confines of writing semi-autobiographical songs. From the album cover through the songs themselves, Folklore is an initimate album of the times, one both produced under the constraints of social distancing and speaking to the emotions many have experienced in light of forced social isolation.
The first thing anyone saw of Folklore was the cover — Swift alone in a forest. In 2020 few things seem to provide much refuge from not only the continued presence of COVID-19 but also the seemingly relentless onslaught of news. Nature has always been an escape and even moreso in 2020, even if everyone else has the same idea and state and national parks have seen issues of overcrowding. Yet even in escape you don’t necessarily get peace and throughout folklore Swift finds herself wrestling with issues that many have experience during quarantine — fear, loneliness, doubt, but also resilience and determination.
The album’s best track and probably one of Swift’s strongest is “the last great American dynasty,” in which Swift tells the story of Rebekah West Harkness. The song merges bits of Great Gatsby-esque parties and Springsteen style storytelling. In “Atlantic City,” Springsteen tells the story of the Chicken Man and the violence of Atlantic City but then switches the viewpoint mid-song from third person to first, now inhabiting a down on his luck worker who makes a bet on Atlantic City as his last hope, only to find himself pulled into the violent world around him and tells his partner, “So honey last night I met this guy and I’m gonna do a little favor for him.” In “American dynasty” Swift makes a similar shift, spending most of the song telling the third person history of Harkness’s arrival and ostracization from the Rhode Island socialite society, but in closing the song what was previously “She had a marvelous time ruining everything” becomes “I had a marvelous time ruining everything.” The story seemingly continues with “mad woman” which balances a delicate piano with the fact that “No one likes a mad woman” even though society made her like that. Coming only one day after Alexandria Oscasio-Cortez’s shearing and needed take-down of Ted Yoho’s non-apology, “mad woman” reminds us to consider events are never one-sided affairs and there’s always something underneath (an idea Swift also hits at in her duet with Bon Iver on “exiles”).
The story in “dynasty” is told in the whispered conversations of the neighbors wondering why the husband died and a lot of the songs follow a similar pattern. On “seven,” Swift focuses on an old friend, one she can’t necessarily picture, but has different memories of that are “passed down like folk songs.” In “august” it’s an old romance that’s slipped away. Meanwhile “the 1” opens the album focusing on an old love and wondering where they are now, the potential different reality both could be living in if things had gone another way, but also a blunt opening acknowledgment that, “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit.” All of it blends together, which can seem both too much and just right throughout the album. The fact that songs blend together is apt for 2020 as is how some songs return to previous ideas, playing on (intentionally or not) the scattered anxious thoughts many have as they contemplate both the past and the future.
Part of folklore feels like a break-up album, but it’s not really that. What folklore is is more confronting both the thoughts people face when alone — the old friends, the ex-boyfriends, the strains of history we pick up throughout life — with the realities of the world around us. On “epiphany” Swift tackles the present crisis head-on, comparing the pandemic with the realities of war. Just as the soldier in the first verse is handed a gun and told it’s little more than a flesh wound, the nurse in the second verse has to process things they never learned in med school. Both watch the person next to them pass away and have only fleeting minutes to understand what they’ve seen. In an era of social distancing there seems to be both endless time for self-reflection but also the reality that time continues to pass by and you have little time to confront one reality before another bit of news arrives through a push notification.