When Taylor Swift announced the coming of her eighth album – only a year after Lover – I, like many fans, waited for midnight with bated breath. I had anticipated an impromptu but up-beat pop sound, similar to what we have started to expect from Taylor, to uplift us. To say I was disappointed would be a misnomer. Surprised? Yes. But disappointed? Never.
folklore, for me, reflects Swift’s growth as an artist. Gone are the country songs that defined Swift’s first foray into the music industry, the pop singles that topped charts of 1989 and the tongue-in-cheek electropop of Reputation. Instead, Swift has released her most open and personal collection yet, intertwining narrative Easter eggs through her songs in a nod to the fairytale-esque beginnings of her first and second albums. In understated lower-case, Swift achieves what Kitty Empire describes as “amber-hued liminality” in a transition to a ruminative style.
But why, in an age of social upheaval and a music era defined by house music and regional rap, have we desired a return to bittersweet ballads?
What stands most prominent in folklore is nostalgia. Swift’s enduring narrative of James, Betty, and the unnamed girl who is the voice of ‘august’ and ‘illicit affairs’ is wrought with both tenderness and bitterness, almost all songs acting as aftermath. Swift’s haunting duet with Bon Iver in ‘exile’ reflects James and Betty’s fragmentising of a love story that never was. For me, ‘seven’ especially resonates, a desire for a time long gone and now inaccessible: “Please picture me in the trees / I hit my peak at seven … Are there still beautiful things?”
I think the reason that Taylor Swift’s album has reached such acclaim is our need to process these emotions that come as a consequence of complete uncertainty. We as listeners – both those who have grown with Taylor and who are only now just discovering her – are hauntingly reminded of what we, as students, as adults, as people, have lost without any forthcoming conclusion. The song ‘epiphany’ especially runs parallel to our own reality: “Someone’s daughter, someone’s mother / Holds your hand through plastic now / Doc, I think she’s crashing out”.
Swift’s soft yet powerful songs fade into poignant orchestrations, rather than reaching their equally powerful climaxes. Everything in folklore hovers, and little is realised. We are given the space to feel sad; to experience a tender and bitter calm that seems, for a moment, like it will last forever.
Photo courtesy of Robert Bye