I’m 7 years old again, telling my mom to keep the car engine running so we can finish the song “Teardrops on My Guitar,” hoping that afterward, the radio station will tell me who sang it.
For the last 14 years, Taylor Swift’s career has taken her all over the musical spectrum. She grew out of her country roots, transitioned to creating pop anthems and now, most recently, she has delved into the black-and-white woods of indie music. For those of us quarantined in our childhood homes, Swift’s return to her acoustic roots in “folklore” allows us to escape into a nostalgic lore of our own.
Lyrically, the emphasis on storytelling in “folklore” highlights Swift’s ability to elevate and add nuance to the traditional breakup song through well-drawn characters and carefully crafted narratives. Plus, Swift collaborated with esteemed songwriter Aaron Dessner from The National. The combined brainpower of these talented artists created robust and deeply personal lyrics.
Some Swift-Dressner songs departed from the breakup, teen angst theme Swift has perfected. Take the third track: “the last great american dynasty” tells the story of Rebekah Harkness, the woman who once owned Swift’s Rhode Island mansion called Holiday House. Swift paints Harkness as a vibrant character, decorating the song with anecdotes of her time at Holiday House, such as when she allegedly stole her neighbor’s dog and “dyed it key lime green.” Swift builds up to her surprise reveal that she eventually buys Holiday House 50 years later with the haunting description that the house is now “free of women with madness, their men and bad habits.” The simple line gives the whole song an air of a ghost story and reveals that Swift has grown beyond writing the traditional love songs she is known for.
Yet, “folklore” is not without love stories. One of the most memorable love songs on the album is “betty.” Unlike most of Swift’s songs, though, “betty” seems to be written from a male perspective. The speaker knows Betty hates them for something they did: “Betty, I won’t make assumptions / About why you switched your homeroom, but / I think it’s ’cause of me,” Swift sings to open the track.
The speaker’s pursuit of Betty is unnerving to experience in song, as Swift sings, “But if I just showed up at your party / Would you have me? Would you want me? / Would you tell me to go fuck myself?” The lyrics lead the speaker to show up at Betty’s party uninvited, but Swift leaves listeners on a cliffhanger concerning Betty’s response. Some fans are speculating that “betty” is part of a three-song storyline with “cardigan” and “august,” showing how even Swift’s more stereotypical romantic songs are part of a more complex storyline. In fact, some Swifties are even arguing that the whole album is part of one great love story.
From a sonic standpoint, Swift’s solo vocals take center stage on the album. Yet her only collaborative song on the album, “exile,” is a standout track. Swift works with indie-folk band Bon Iver; the collaboration is surprising, considering she rarely features other vocalists in her music. Nonetheless, the pairing is pleasant, and Justin Vernon’s deep, sturdy voice sounds great juxtaposed with Swift’s airy vocals. At the end of the song, the arrangement splits into two parts, creating one of the more intricate and engaging moments of production on the record.
As complex as “exile” may be, the overwhelming simplicity that pervades “folklore” is refreshing and isolates it from Swift’s more commercial albums like last year’s “Lover.” The minimalist “peace” features a mellow and laid-back guitar backing, giving Swift’s voice space to shine. The song is reminiscent of her earlier work, that of a girl and her guitar ready to let her voice be heard.
Swift’s affinity for pop perfection, however, means the album can sound overproduced and sometimes feels a little too polished. What makes indie albums attractive is their rawness, the fact that there isn’t much production behind them. At times, “folklore” sounds like a thrifted T-shirt someone bought off Depop for twice its value, a product falsely marketed toward a higher-class group of people.
Ultimately, “folklore” is indie music for people who listen to pop music. Although Swift has demonstrated much-appreciated musical growth, the album lacks that rawness of Swifts’ early music that drew so many people to her. With a title that harkens back to her roots and lyrics that command your attention, “folklore” is a step in the right direction, but if Swift decides to continue on her indie-folk path, she should further embrace herself, imperfections and all.