Disclaimer: We hadn’t been paying attention to Taylor Swift’s music for years until folklore.
Granted, Taylor Swift is an incredibly successful artist who has managed to remain relevant as the years passed by, while other pop stars were easily forgotten. However, Taylor herself was struggling throughout this time to figure out what the next step should be in order to keep her place in the spotlight. This led to a combination of unforgettable bops and some awkward failures that were never reflective of her true worth. As an artist, Taylor Swift became a frustrating figure and sort of faded into the background for both of us. When she released folklore, however, something shifted. With the release of folklore and evermore, Taylor Swift has steadily found a refreshing and authentic new artistic direction.
We wanted to look at folklore and evermore in conjunction with one another – it is rare to find two albums so closely linked as these. Instead of each album being an era, her work this year shows us a cohesive shift in her work: in terms of songwriting, production, and even collaborations.
Folklore is an album that starts at the beginning of the end. It’s an album that is nostalgic for an era that is long gone (“Roaring twenties, tossing pennies in the pool”), and its stories are of longing and loss, a loneliness that demands reflection. When folklore came out, I was almost through a four month long return home for the summer, stuck with more free time than I had ever before in my life. For many of us, it’s been the soundtrack to our own journeys within ourselves, as we’ve watched school years and summers, and certain parts of life that we took for granted, end without warning.
There’s no shortage of commentary on Swift’s new-found style. The album is reflective and quiet, its soft piano and orchestral arrangements allow her voice to remain at the centre of the stories she tells. Her collaborations with Aaron Dessner of The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver were the subject of a lot of reporting when the album was released, and their influence, or at least the general indie folk/rock vibe that they’re synonymous with, is visible throughout.
What makes it so special is that every detail has a significance of its own: from the harmonica at the start of betty that invokes the imagery of a wholesome American love story, to the contrast between her voice and that of Justin Vernon during the duet on exile. It’s no secret that Swift is excellent at crafting each musical era she’s had, and she’s always known how to curate a sound that is unique to whatever project she’s working on. It’s with this album, however, that she manages to strike the delicate balance of both carefully constructing a persona whilst also allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to create something that feels authentic.
The centrepiece of the album is, of course, her songwriting. Throughout folklore, Swift creates narratives that are whimsical yet delicate, and often rawer than what we’ve come to expect. She draws on themes that we’ve seen throughout her career, but the stories feel better crafted and more evocative than usual. Here and there we see her falter a bit, with songs like mirrorball and seven falling a little flat in spite of their vulnerability, but that’s to be expected considering the length of the album. Soon after it was released, receiving a largely positive response, evermore was announced out of the blue. Its release signalled that folklore was not just a blip in Taylor Swift’s discography.
Folklore’s sister album, evermore, is a successful continuation of a body of work that began during an unusual year. Faced with the impossibility of planning a tour after the release of her 8th album, Taylor Swift and her collaborators “just couldn’t stop writing”, as she put it a day before the release of evermore on social media. This time, the singer and songwriter didn’t dig deep to explore yet another version of herself to show the world, which throughout the years has meant a drastic change in hairstyle and clothing. Evermore is not the beginning of a new era but rather an album that cannot be separated from the one that came before.
Storytelling remains front and centre. But while folklore is the most coherent album in Taylor Swift’s repertoire, evermore feels experimental and looser in comparison to its predecessor, indicative of a time when Miss Swift is realising that she does not have to remain tied to the rules that she set upon herself for the past decade. Just like in folklore, the album moves through entangled stories and characters that share universal (and highly relatable) feelings of loss, nostalgia and sacrifice. Taylor seems to be testing her ability to write about almost anything: a Hollywood actress who returns to her hometown and reunites with an old fling for the holidays, a double-murder mystery or the tragedy of losing a loved one when you’re too young to see their full worth. In the meantime, Taylor Swift manages to strike lines like “messy as the mud on your truck tires” that feel like something she had written in her diary at 17, but had not yet managed to fit into a song.
One of her most well-accomplished tracks is champagne problems. The piano playing softly in the background and the rich imagery takes the listener to the unexpected event of a broken engagement from the perspective of a female character struggling with her mental health. “One for the money, two for the show, I never was ready, so I watch you go” is a deeply self-conscious assessment of how humans can so easily sabotage their own happiness. And the one everyone is already fantasising about singing in a live concert “She would’ve made such a lovely bride, What a shame she’s fucked in her head, But you’ll find the real thing instead, She’ll patch up your tapestry that I shred” – Taylor Swift’s stunning songwriting at its finest.
The hard-won wisdom behind songs like happiness and tolerate it is a testament to the maturity and deep empathy that moves Swift’s songcraft at this point in her career. dorothea possesses some lyrical pockets that show that the artist commands with ease word-playing and rhythming (“And if you’re ever tired of being known for who you know, You know, You’ll always know me”). In coney island, Matt Berninger from The National proves a natural duet partner, making a heartbreaking theme magnificent. The album ends with another much-appreciated collaboration with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon in a note of hope after this unprecedented year “I had a feeling so peculiar… This pain wouldn’t be for / Evermore”.
Not everything in evermore works. However, both folklore and its sister album are incomparable to anything being done right now.
The stories Taylor Swift is telling through her songwriting are taking her to uncharted territory (far beyond what is expected of any pop star) and they will live on even after we forget this pandemic ever happened. The tales of love and loss, rebellion and fate, are what keep us going when we do not know what to make of the world around us, and there is value in diving back into our folktales and myths, for solace and strength.
In folklore, at times it feels as though Taylor’s footing isn’t quite so sure in this new musical direction she’s taken. In evermore, however, we see her move confidently in this new direction. After a more than 10-year long career of world-conquering success, Taylor Swift’s future as an artist has never looked this promising. We may not know exactly what is coming next from her, but it seems like she’s on her way, with many more stories left to tell.
Article by Angbeen Abbas and Beatriz Silva.