Album Review: Taylor Swift - Folklore

I can see us lost in the memory…

It’s Thursday morning and I’m on the way to take my first break at work; preemptively, even before I am outside, sitting down, morning snack in hand, I begin futzing with my phone, opening up Instagram. The first post in my feed is a black and white photo of Taylor Swift, wearing an enormous overcoat, pensively walking through a forest—the post is from the account of Aaron Dessner—producer and multi-instrumentalist from The National. And it takes a moment for me to really comprehend what is happening, and for me to understand what my eyes are quickly skimming from the text that accompanies the photograph. 

As I’m walking back through the building, I quickly glean all I need to know from reading the headline on Pitchfork’s homepage; pulling my face mask1 back up over my mouth as I head out onto the sales floor, I stroll up to my friend, and boss, Andrea, and tell her that, yes, I’m about to finally take my first break2 of the day, but also, that I have important news.

“Guess who is releasing a new album, tonight, at midnight, featuring members of The National?” I ask her, barely able to contain the answer.

Andrea gives this question a brief moment, then nervously responds with, “Julien Baker?”

“NO!,” I exclaim. “TAYLOR SWIFT!!”

Andrea gasps—and actually takes a step back upon hearing this news. 

There is a part of me, of course, that wanted to begin listening to Folklore, the eighth studio album from Taylor Swift, at 11 p.m. (central time), and stay up with it until after midnight; but there is the part of me that knows, at age 37 with an alarm set for 4:45 a.m., just how washed I am, and how that, really, isn’t an option. 

But upon listening to portions of it over breakfast, and on my walk to work3, on Friday morning, and upon actually sitting down with it, uninterrupted, on Friday night4, Folklore, among the myriad other things it is—one of those things is it’s an album that is totally worth the swirling, fever pitched hype surrounding it; it is the kind of emotionally devastating, fascinating, compelling, and rewarding album that is completely worth staying up well beyond your bedtime to hear, alongside everyone else in the world, for the first time.

The knee jerk reaction to Folklore, by the next day, and over the weekend as more responses, both from Swift’s listeners as well as critics, arrived, is that it’s Swift’s “indie” album. And yes, working with members of one of the most revered contemporary “indie rock” bands, and snagging a feature from Justin Vernon, would lead one to make that judgement, or at least, make that joke. It’s an easy joke to make, but it’s mostly off base. Far from an “indie” album, Folklore is, at its core, Swift’s most restrained, reflective effort to date. A night and day difference from the bombastic, slick pop sound that dominated Lover (released less than a year ago), Folklore is still a ‘pop’ album, yes, but it’s a deconstructed one, finding her working with new collaborators and working within dramatic, gorgeous, and complicated arrangements that lend themselves all too well to the dramatic flair and unflinching emotion Swift writes into her lyrics. 

Another reaction to the album is that it’s a ‘sweater weather’ record dropped during the middle of the unbearable heat and humidity of the summer. And yes, both the tone of the album, overall, as well as the aesthetic of its eight different covers5, and the fact that there is a song called “Cardigan” (complete with a matching cardigan available for purchase from her website), Folklore does boast big, sad girl autumnal vibes. 

Another reaction, albeit a little more niche, is that people barely have had a chance to recover from Punisher; how can Taylor Swift expect us to be ready for something quite like this?

It is more than all of that, though. 

Folklore should not be looked at as Swift’s “pandemic” album, but if we weren’t well beyond 100 days of quarantining and social-distancing from dat rona, there is a high possibly that Folklore simply wouldn’t exist—or if it were to ever exist, it would be at a much later date in time, and arrive in a much different shape. Written and recorded over long distance, with Swift cutting her vocals in Los Angeles, the album’s production, arranging, and instrumentation was all done remotely by its participants. Swift’s frequent collaborator (and Lover producer) Jack Antonoff is credited with production on five of the album’s 16 tracks (four of those he’s credited as co-writer); Dessner is credited as co-writer and producer on the other 11, with his twin brother Bryce contributing to a number of the album’s cinematic sounding string arrangements. 

Sprawling in its length, kaleidoscopic in its ever shifting yet wildly cohesive sound, and unrelenting in the kind of emotional impact it has, Folklore is a bold, surprising, and fearless statement of beauty made during, but not exactly a reflection of, difficult times—providing us with a poignant gift that, whether we want to or not, offers opportunity for a reflection of something else—ourselves.


I hesitate to call Folklore a concept album, or a ‘song cycle,’ because it stops just short of being that; however, it is a collection of tightly connected songs, with lyrics, or themes, often referencing other songs, both within this album, as well as allusions to materials from Swift’s previous efforts. And for as wildly different, sonically speaking, as Folklore is for Swift as a performer, there are moments where it isn’t so different at all, or rather that she is able to slyly find the ‘pop’ point of entrance into Dessner’s moody compositions. 

“The 1,” the aptly title first track on the album, is one of those moments. Beginning with cavernous piano chords ringing out, Swift arrives, coyly, alongside a playful, swinging rhythm, glitchy synthesizers just underneath, and a quietly plucked acoustic guitar,. Aside from the twinkling of the synthesizers in the background, it’s an interesting juxtaposition, musically, with Swift and Dessner working to find that pop exuberance that makes the song ‘fun,’ or at least light and breezy, while still keeping it somewhat restrained, all while arranging it within primarily acoustic, traditional, very un-glossy instrumentation. The lyrics, too, as well as the way Swift kind of lets her words tumble into the song’s groove, helps with this feeling. “I’m doing good—I’m on some new shit,” she says in the song’s surprising opening line, though from there, things take a predominately pensive and wistful turn, as Swift waxes about what could have been with a partner who “would’ve been the one.” “I guess you never know…and if you wanted me, you really should have showed,” she sings leading up to the song’s refrain; then, by the end of the song’s second verse, “You know the greatest loves of all time are over now.” It’s a fascinating musical balancing act, finding that space between the head nodding that comes instinctively along with the song’s skittering beat, the damn near haunted piano progression, and Swift’s ruminations and their delivery—and she pulls it off, making a slinky opening track that doesn’t so much set the tone for the rest of the album, but does leave one wondering where Folklore will take them next.

Much like Lover before it, Folklore is a lengthy affair—over an hour of music, and 16 tracks; and while in all that pop bombast on Lover, there were some admittedly uneven moments, one of the most pleasant and surprising things about Folklore is, overall, just how consistently great it is. Even when a song didn’t leave me utterly and emotionally devastated, there are very admirable elements to roughly half of the album. 

As one might expect, I have been sharing a lot of my feelings about Folkore on Twitter—specifically lyrics that I think about regularly throughout my day, since hearing the album for the first time. An acquaintance responded to one of my tweets, telling me that she really loved this ‘Taylor pivot” that has happened to me, and wanted to know my thoughts on the line, “If I’m dead to you, then why are you at the wake?”

That line is, of course, one of countless others throughout the album that treads the line between dramatic, surprising, and clever, and it, specifically, is pulled from the very dramatic, swirling “My Tears Ricochet,” the first of the Antonoff produced material to arrive on the album, and the only song credited to Swift alone as songwriter. 

Of all the songs that are about heartbreak on Folklore, and yes there are many, but “My Tears Ricochet is perhaps the one that is the most embittered, and is certainly among the handful that can be described as lyrically snarling, which is a sharp contrast to the borderline minimalism and icy nature of the song’s arranging. 

While you can hear subtle uses of Auto Tune and other vocal manipulations throughout the mixing on Folklore, Swift’s vocals are weighed down with a robotic shadow trailing them, especially as she sings the song’s refrain. Heavily speculated to be about the contentious relationship and fallout between Swift and her former label bosses Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta, calling the lyrics dramatic is drastically selling them short. “If I’m on fire, you’ll be made of ashes too,” she sings in the song’s first verse; then, later, “You know I didn’t want to haunt you, but what a ghostly scene—you wear the same jewels that I gave you as you bury me.” 

As aptly titled as the first track is, the album’s seventh track is also fittingly titled. And maybe it’s because of the piano melody having a familiar, National-esque feeling to it, or the way the rest of the album’s instrumentation falls in quietly behind it, or maybe it’s the range Swift’s voice hits right out of the gate before she drops back into a ‘talk-sing’ kind of delivery for parts of the verses, but “Seven,” really, would not have sounded out of place on The National’s sprawling, ambitious 2019 effort, I Am Easy to Find, which, released in conjunction with a short film of the same name, featured a cavalcade of female guest vocalists who often overshadowed the gloomy baritone of Matt Berninger. 

Musically, at times, “Seven” is the song that maybe is the most in line with the ‘folk’ portion of Folklore—a strummy acoustic guitar arrives as the song continues to progress, and lyrically, while Swift blends imagery from her youth, with evocative metaphors that can only come from the imagination of childhood. “And I’ve been meaning to tell you I think your house is haunted,” she sings, in the song’s second verse, her words stretched and tumbling over the song’s bright, reserved rhythm. “Your dad is always mad and that must be why. And I think you should come live with me, and we can be pirates. Then you won’t have to cry, or hide in the closet. And just like a folk song, our love will be passed on.”


Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me…

One of the most admirable things about Swift as she’s grown into being a songwriter is the way she uses her lyrics as both an outlet for confession and honesty and a means of storytelling—as well as blurring them together into what, I guess, for lack of a better description, would be a beautiful, at times haunting ‘creative non-fiction.’ 

As Folklore moves beyond its second half, this contrasting between fiction, non-fiction, and an amalgamation of both, runs through the impressive run of “Illicit Affairs,” “Invisible String,” and “Mad Woman”—all of which feature lyrics that are among the most memorable, or emotionally stirring, from the entirety of the album.

Of all the grandeur and theatricality present on Folklore, “Illicit Affairs” might be the song that manages to cram the most sweeping drama into its three minutes and change running time. The narrative is, in a word, unrelenting, as Swift builds it up right to when it come crashing down as the song ends. Arranged around a swirling, strummed acoustic guitar that propels the rhythm forward, the other instrumentation rises alongside the tension within the song as it builds toward each refrain; but, similarly to how a number of other songs on Folklore are executed, Swift never lets the bombast become to explosive or out of hand.

The critical analysis of “Illicit Affairs” calls it a ‘break up song,’ and yes, it certainly is, but it is also maybe a little more than that too—it isn’t about when something is over, but rather what happens long after something that was already contentious has come to an end. It’s about the need for discretion (“Make sure nobody sees you leave; hood over your head, keep your eyes down” and “Leave the perfume on the shelf that you picked out just for him—so you leave no trace behind. Like you don’t even exist”) and how it feels when the thrill of an affair fades away over time (“What started in beautiful rooms ends with meetings in parking lots.”)

The refrain to “Illicit Affairs” snarls, but unlike the embittered snarling from earlier, it’s simply one enormous open wound. “And that’s the thing about illicit affairs,” Swift sings with more than a hint of regret and sadness in her voice. “And clandestine meetings and stolen stares—they show their truth one single time, but they lie….a million little times,” which his an absolutely wild refrain, specifically for the inclusion of a $10 word like ‘clandestine,’ but also because of vivid, descriptive language she uses that, with ease, portrays the jittery feeling of a ‘stolen stare,’ in contrast with the harsh reality of an illicit relationship.

It is “Illicit Affair”’s bridge section that really makes this song as dramatic and emotionally compelling as it is—similarly to the bridge section really selling “Cruel Summer” last year—specifically with the punch line of “I scream, ‘For whatever it’s worth, I love you, and ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?” 

Here, Swift is unable hold her emotions back, as she details the kind of toll a relationship like this takes on someone—alternating between a desperation to maintain the relationship and anger that it even occurred in the first place. “And you want to scream ‘Don’t call me kid—don’t call me baby,” she hurls. “Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me,” before adding both “You showed me colors you know I can’t see with anyone else,” and perhaps one of the most difficult lines to hear in the entire album: “You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else.”

If “Illicit Affairs” is an open, snarling wound, and “My Tears Ricochet” is embittered, “Mad Woman” is seething and volatile. The song is literally all tension and no release, with Swift showing insurmountable restraint as she holds herself back, delivering nearly every lyric from what sounds like gnashed, gritted teeth, offset by a lush, dizzying string arrangement that encircles her. 

There’s a lot to try an unpack with “Mad Woman”—it’s use of visceral imagery, for starters, but also its language, both figuratively and literally.

Since the beginning of the year, and maybe even before that, I have tried to be aware of ‘ableist’ language, specifically when it comes to mental health; specifically when it comes to the usage of the word ‘crazy,’ which a lot of people (and a lot of people I know, or come in contact with) toss around without giving much, if any, thought to how someone dealing with mental health problems (i.e. me) feels about hearing that so callously used.

Pop music, especially with the last 20+ years, has myriad examples of the casual, thoughtless inclusion of that word into the conceit of a song—tunes by both Britney Spears and N*SYNC come to mind immediately. Most recently, Carly Rae Jepsen opened up her Dedicated Side B album with a song called “This Love Isn’t Crazy”; The (Dixie) Chicks also toss the word ‘crazy’ around on the titular track of their new album. 

Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy—what about that?,” Swift taunts in the refrain to “Mad Woman.” “There’s nothing like a mad woman; what a shame she went mad. No one likes a mad woman—you made her like that,” she adds, moments later. 

It may be a little juvenile of me to admit this, and I don’t think I’m alone here, but there’s something very, very thrilling about hearing Swift’s inclusion of profanity in her lyrics on Folklore. The sly “I’m on some new shit,” from “The 1” is fun and winks a little at the audience, but by the time we get to “Mad Woman,” she, without even batting an eyelash, utters “What do you sing on your drive home? Do you see my face in the neighbor’s lawn? Does she smile or does she mouth, ‘fuck you forever?,” in the song’s first verse.

Swift is, putting it lightly, not fucking around on “Mad Woman”; and ableist language aside, it is a striking, unsettling song, especially when she deadpans dark things like, “It’s obvious that wanting me dead has really brought you two together.” 

In a sharp contrast, though, and also perhaps a smart one, in between the anguish of “Illicit Affairs” and the need for blood of “Mad Woman,” there’s “Invisible String,” which is by far the gentlest, and probably the most heartfelt, though bittersweet at times, moment on the album.

Structured around precisely plucked acoustic guitars and very minimal, glitchy percussion, as well as subtle string arrangement adding to the emotion of the song, it’s one of the most directly autobiographical pieces on Folklore, with Swift, outside of making references to two other songs in her body of work, gets personal about the development of her current relationship with actor Joe Alwyn—the alleged subject of a number of tracks on Lover. Setting the scene, she uses wildly vivid imagery in “Invisible String”: “Green was the color of the grass where I used to read in Centennial Park,” she begins, and then by the song’s third verse—“Gold was the color of the leaves when I showed you Centennial Park. Hell was the journey but it brought me heaven.” 

It’s also onInvisible String” where Swift reveals how self-aware she is of her ‘persona’ by briefly touching on her headline grabbing relationships of the past, and how they would, eventually, wind up as fodder for one of her songs: “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind for the boys who broke my heart—now I send their babies presents.”

For an album with the word ‘folk’ in it, and for an album that is built around a relatively scaled back sound, when compared, specifically, to Lover, Folklore is, of course, not a folk album. It is minimal, overall, yes, and ‘indie’ leaning, sure, if you want to go there, but it isn’t a record, as I’m sure you’ve surmised, that is just Swift and the acoustic guitar. However, there is one moment, as the album heads into its final act, that gets the closest to a ‘folk’ song.

Allegedly one of three loosely connected songs not the album revolving around the same characters and circumstances, but from opposing points of view, “Betty” is upbeat in its rhythm, and primarily structured around loosely, plucked acoustic guitar strings, and even includes a harmonica throughout. And yes, while it is the ‘folkiest’ in its arrangement, Swift cannot help but go for it with a key change near the finale. 

For a song that, at first glance, seems to be about teenage love—Swift, herself, alleges, that she was using the album as means to not only tell her own story, but those of fictions she was sketching out, like “a seventeen year old, standing on a porch, learning to apologize”—there is an awful lot of mystery, or at the very least, speculation surrounding the song, including sprawling theories on the thinly veiled references to a lesbian relationship, and rampant confusion on who the song’s co-writer, William Bowery, might be. 

And, like the surprising inclusion of profanity in “Mad Woman,” Swift doesn’t hold back on “Betty,” either, adding a subversive level of pathos to the song’s refrain: “But if I showed up at your party, would you have me? Would you want me? Would you tell me to go fuck myself or lead me to the garden?


Folklore is great, there is no argument about that. It may be one of Swift’s most surprising (for obvious reasons) and most compelling for sure. However, it is not, from beginning to end, a perfect record. Structurally it doesn’t buckle under itself, but it does, as it heads toward the end, lose its momentum, with both “Epiphany” and “Peace” coming off as two of the less successfully executed pieces. 

There is the curious case of the jaunty “The Last Great American Dynasty,” which is sequenced within the album’s first five tracks. It does change the album’s pacing, placed so early on in the record, and at least temporarily picks things up to a bit of a frenzied state once the song gets going.

I hesitate to say that “American Dynasty” is the most polarizing song on Folklore, but on my initial, uninterrupted listen through the album, it was the first moment that gave me reason for pause. Maybe because it’s a ‘story song,’ steeped in historical fact, where the world of a beleaguered oil heiress and Swift’s own converge both in the physical sense as well as the metaphorical sense of possibly being a ‘mad woman,’ but it is not the ‘all-timer’ or ‘instant classic’ that it has been made out to be in early reviews of the album6. Of all the collaborative tracks on Folklore, shared between Dessner’s arranging and instrumentation, and Swift’s songwriting, as a whole, this is the one that shares the most with the cacophony of the latter day National bombast; however, that doesn’t make it memorable for the right reasons. 


I am uncertain at what point the expressions “I feel seen,” and “I feel attacked,” worked their way into the contemporary lexicon, or even when I adopted them for my own usage. I think the first place I saw them being used was, like so many contemporary, fleeting expressions, on Twitter, but I can’t recall how long ago that was. 

I began applying the expressions to music, specifically my relationship with music, around a year  ago, and I think the first time I really felt both truly seen and attacked by an album was when, near the beginning of autumn, sat down with Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell. At that point, I would have never guess that I’d be taking album by LDR so seriously, but more importantly, that I would see so many reflections of myself within it—simultaneously feeling both seen, and attacked, by the album.

Sitting down with Folklore, for my first, uninterrupted listen, I knew I was in for something; what I didn’t expect, and maybe I should have, though, is just how seen and attacked five specific songs would make me feel. 

What I did not expect was how harsh a reflection of myself I’d see in these moments.

Leaving like a father, running like water…

Of all the songs on Folklore that could serve as a single, “Cardigan,” the album’s second track, is the one that has the most potential for casual accessibility. It’s dramatic, yes, and quite grand, but it’s not nearly as dramatic as other pieces on the album, and structurally, boasts the most ‘pop’ sensibility in its songwriting—especially in the refrain, which is not, like, nearly as oversized or explosive as other refrains in Swift’s canon have been, but is highly focused on conveying the conceit of the song while being wildly infectious.

Within the week after Folklore’s release, Swift issued an alternate mix to “Cardigan,” stripping it away even more, calling it the “Cabin in Candlelight” version; but the original album mix, complete with a layer of clattering, shuffling percussion, even with as reserved as it is, Swift and Dessner are able to pull the song, as a whole, into a slow burning, slinky groove, even with as swooning and lush as the instrumentation is. 

Swift states “Cardigan” is the first in the series of three connected songs about ‘teenage love,’ but taken out of that context, it also more than survives on its own as a song about fragmented, fleeting moments of love—or at least lust7—and the somber, nostalgic longing that settles in once the relationship has ended. 

There’s a lot of vivid imagery throughout Folklore, but “Cardigan” is maybe among the most fully developed in terms of Swift’s ability to craft a very tangible scene with her storytelling, with cinematic, imaginative lyrics like, “But I knew you—dancin’ in your Levi’s, drunk under a streetlight,” she sings in the song’s first refrain. “I knew you—hand under my sweatshirt. Baby, kiss it better.”

The imagery of those refrains, set to that melody, grow darker as the song continues to unfold though, a device that allows Swift to explore the ending of this relationship through some minor ambiguity, but also through wildly poetic phrase turns, especially by the time the song reaches its climax: “I knew you—tried to change the ending; Peter losing Wendy,” or “I knew you—leaving like a father, running like water.”

There is also a very mournful, regretful quality to imagery of the turbulent, youthful love depicted the song, which is, I think, what maybe hits the hardest on an emotional level—“But I knew you’d linger like a tattoo kiss; I knew you’d haunt all of my ‘what if’s,’” she sings near the song’s ending. Or, perhaps the most difficult to hear, is the song’s minimal second verse: “Chase two girls—lose the one. When you are young, they assume you know nothing.”

You weren’t mine to lose…

In her review of Folklore for Pitchfork, Jillian Mapes compares the aesthetic of “August”—the album’s fittingly titled eighth track, and the third song that fits within Swift’s connected pieces about teenage love—to that of Mazzy Star. And if you think hard enough about it, you can kind of hear it, but it’s more than a bit of a stretch. Taylor Swift has not, even in all of her newfound indie-ness, made a shoegaze track for her album, though there is a very gauzy, dreamy quality to parts of “August”—specifically the way she sings in a little bit of a lower, huskier tone during the song’s verses. The song opens with a surprising burst of e-bowed guitar distortion before the skittering, minimal drum machine percussion begins, as well as the quiet, cavernously reverberating acoustic guitar strums. Even with these elements, it’s still a ‘pop’ song, which you can hear once the song’s refrain hits—structurally, the way the lyrics fall, this kind of sing-a-long, wildly catchy refrain seems like it’s destined to be enormous, tucked into some technicolor, bombastic hit. Instead, Swift keeps it as reserved as she can, trying to keep her voice from rising above the hushed tone she’s delivering her vocals in. 

“August” is no less successfully executed of a song in comparison to “Cardigan” or “Betty,” but it is far less emotionally manipulative in its melody and instrumentation when compared to the sweeping, wistful grandeur of “Cardigan.” Lyrically, though, it hits just as hard, with Swift wading deep into the kind of all encompassing feeling that comes when you find yourself unable to figure out if you really ‘love’ someone for who they are, or if you are ‘in love’ with a version of that person that you have created; there’s a difference, and it’s incredibly tough to navigate at any point in your life, but especially when you are in your ‘teenage feelings.’

I can see us lost in the memory—August slipped away into a moment in time, ‘cause it was never mine,” Swift sings in the song’s refrain, then later, changes the lyric within the song’s bridge8 section: “Back when we were still changing for the better, wanting was enough. For me it was enough to live for the hope of it all; canceled my plans just one case you’d call…so much for summer love and saying ‘us,’ ‘cause you weren’t mine to lose.

Dreamy and swooning in a slightly more jagged way9, as a whole, “Mirrorball” is not as heartbreaking of a listen when compared to the other emotionally devastating personal standouts on Folklore, however, there are specific lyrics that are very affecting, and if anything, the slow burning, woozy nature of the song’s arranging is unlike anything else on the album, and is one of its most stunning moments. 

It, like “August,” is one of the handful of tracks that Antonoff is credited as co-writer, producer, and musician on, so it steers itself away from the swirling, lush sounding tension of a bulk of the album, but it is still lush and swirling in its own way. And while Swift did not make a shoegaze song for Folklore, the arranging and focus on percussion that is totally buried in the mix, favoring the jangly, hypnotic, effected electric guitar does give its aesthetic a ‘dream pop’ quality. 

Lyrically, “Mirrorball” is pretty heavy-handed and a little saccharine, but because it’s simply so gorgeous sounding, it’s easy to forgive the blatant metaphor of Swift as a mirrorball, and when she says things like, “I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight,” or in the second verse when she changes the lyric to be, “I can change everything about me to fit in.”

Swift also effortlessly casts her whirling, shimmering imagery within the song’s refrain—“When no one is around, my dear,” she sings in a slightly hushed voice. “I’ll be on my tallest tip-toes, spinning in my highest heels. Shining just for you.”

But it’s one single line that makes this song: “And when I break, it’s in a million pieces.”

I have a lot of regrets about that…

Placed slightly after the halfway point, assembled around a somewhat ominous organ drone and a dirge-like rhythm, and also helmed by Antonoff, “This is Me Trying,” even with its near-cloying metaphors, is one of Folklore’s most honest and identifiable moments. 

Operating in an aesthetic a lot less dreamy, but not quite ‘nightmarish,’ you could say that “This is Me Trying” sounds like waking life—sonically, it comes as quite a surprise, and lyrically, it surprises as well, with Swift writing from a very self-deprecating, desperate place; the kind of place where you might catch reflections of yourself that you are not ready for, or regularly try to avoid.

Gone is the anger of songs like “Mad Woman” or “My Tears Ricochet,” as well as the heartbreak found throughout—in a sharp contrast, “This is Me Trying” finds Swift practically despondent in her pessimism and frustration with herself. “I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting,” she sings in the song’s first verse. Is it a little much? Yes. Is it a cliche? Also, yes. But does it work? Yes. 

Is “They told me all of my cages were mental—so I got wasted like all my potential,” more than ‘a little much’? Absolutely. But does that line it hard. Yes. Yes it does.

Over a year ago, I went on one of the last vacations’ I will more than likely be taking for a while10my wife and I flew to Arizona to visit friends of ours who had relocated from there a few years prior. In writing about it, and attempting to make all of the ambitious threads converge at a specific point, I used the conceit of ‘trying.’ I had learned around that time that the word ‘essay,’ when used as a verb, means to make an attempt or an effort.

It means to try and what I realized is that we, if you are like me11, aren’t always able to ‘try your best,’ but that you are trying. 

“This is Me Trying” may not be as emotionally manipulative in its arrangement—here, the juxtaposition of dissonance and minor swooning creates a sense of tension that is never really released—but it’s one of the songs on Folklore that, without a doubt, cuts the deepest on a personal level. The exasperated desperation in her lyrics is palpable, and especially, right now, we might not be trying our best (I know I’m not), but we are trying.

It doesn’t always seem like it, but I, much like Swift, apparently, am trying.


I’m not your problem anymore…

Less than 48 hours after the release of Folklore, I received a text from my former co-worker and friend, Madeline, who wanted to know my thoughts on the album. We had a brief exchange about the album, and she mentioned her boyfriend really liked the song “Exile,” but that she didn’t really ‘get it.’

What I realized, maybe a day or two later, is that her boyfriend probably likes this song for the very same reason that I do—it is, undoubtedly, big fragile, toxic male energy, set to music.

Sequenced early in the record, and featuring guest vocals from Bon Iver himself Justin Vernon, “Exile,” is, hands down, one of the most jaw dropping moments on Folklore. Musically, nothing else on the record comes close to being this somber, this haunting, and this gorgeous at the same time; lyrically, it is wildly calculated in how it plays its hand over time, setting you up for the explosive bridge section which finds Vernon and Swift overlapping their vocals like they are characters in a Broadway musical written about a tumultuous breakup. 

Erroneously compared to The Swell Season’s “Falling Slowly” in Mapes’ review for Pitchfork, the difference between the two songs is this—yes, “Falling Slowly” is very theatrical in a number of ways, and very emotionally manipulative, but with the relationship at the core of the song, as depicted on the verge of falling apart, there are still very faint glimmers that things might be okay in the end. With “Exile,” that is simply not the case.

“Exile” is two different perspectives on roughly the same set of circumstances—that the woman in the song’s story, in this case, Swift, has moved on from her previous relationship—as portrayed by Vernon. Vernon, his voice thankfully free of Auto-Tune and additional layers of manipulation, takes the first verse: “I can see you standing, honey, with his arms around your body. Laughing—but the joke’s not funny at all,” while the first line of Swift’s verse mirrors this observation, but from her own perspective: “I can see you staring, honey, like he’s just your understudy; like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me.”

The song’s refrain too, is mostly told from their respective sides, with Swift’s lines coming off as much, much harsher: “I’m not your problem anymore, so who am I offending?” And they both come together, as the song continues, sharing the evocative line, “I think I’ve seen this film before—but I didn’t like the ending.”

And only a powerful voice like Vernon’s, and someone as ambitious as Swift, on a song like this, could sell the way the bridge section unfolds, with overlapping vocals, hitting the hardest when Vernon belts out, “You never gave a warning sign,” with Swift coming in before he can even finish his thought, interjecting, “I gave so many signs.” It creates one of Folklore’s most stirring moments, and even though this is obviously not a track that was conceived as a ‘pop song,’ between the subtle infectiousness of the melody and the theatricality of all the elements, it is a song that still plays in your head long after you’ve finished listening.

“This is Me Trying” may be one of the most reflective tracks on Folklore, it’s “Exile” that pushes the mirror closer to your face, forcing you to look at yourself, and accepting, (and accepting both sides of the song, for sure)no matter how difficult it might be, that when something went to pieces in the past, you, more than likely, have more blame to shoulder than you might realize, and realizing how much of that fragile, toxic masculinity you might actually have within, even if you don’t necessarily realize it at first. 


It’s not the closing track on Norman Fucking Rockwell, but positioned right before the end is “Happiness is A Butterfly,” a song that, really, is so somber and sparse, the record could have ended there. It finds Lana Del Rey, over Antonoff’s piano keys, recounting the tumultuous end of a relationship, and the remorse in its wake. It’s a pensive, meditative piece that brings the tone of the album to a whisper, prior to its final moment—the epilogue, of sorts, in the form of “Hope is A Dangerous Thing for A Woman Like Me to Have—But I Have It.”

In a sense, “Hoax,” the final track on Folklore, is similar in its tone, though far more tense and dramatic in its execution, though it finds Swift in a similarly pensive, meditative state, bringing the album to a hush as it concludes. It, along with “The 1,” were apparently among the last songs put together for the album, with the intention from Dessner and Swift that the two tracks would work as bookends for the album—serving as an inverse to one another tonally. The former having big ‘we could have been somebody’ energy; the latter, more along the lines of ‘how could you do this to me?’

I hesitate to say that Folklore is a dark album, but there is a long shadow cast over it at times, and “Hoax” contains one of the starkest lyrics on the album: “Stood on the cliffside screaming, ‘Give me a reason.’ Your faithless love’s the only thing I believe in.” This isn’t the only time Swift taps into this kind of bleak imagery on Folklore—on “This is Me Trying,” she proclaims, “Pulled the car off the road to the lookout; could’ve followed my fears all the way down.” Of all the recurring ideas and themes that she’s packed into the album, it’s these two moments that are, perhaps, the most surprising and challenging, but also linger with the listener much longer than anything else. ‘Scars,’ and ‘film,’ or ‘movies,’ as it were, are also ideas that Swift weaves into a number of songs on the album, and she does so with a charm that makes the repeated use appear genuine, and thoughtful, rather than a knowing, pandering wink to her fanbase. 

“Hoax,” of course, was composed to be the finale to the album, and it certainly sounds that way—it is literally all tension, and no release, as Swift broods over Dessner’s creaky piano and eerie string arrangements coming in underneath. “Don’t want no other shade of blue but you,” she sings in the song’s refrain—more than likely an aside to the refrain to “Cruel Summer.” “No other sadness in the world will do.” The song ends, and leaves me, at least, with an uneasy feeling, and Folklore, as an album, ends without any real resolution to the threads of conflict running throughout. 

The ambitious, complex, thoughtful, and emotional nature of both the music and the lyrics on Folklore reveal Dessner as a surprisingly affable collaborator for artists operating outside of the scope of ‘indie rock,’ and it also reveals, which people should have already figured out by now, that Swift is much more than a simple ‘pop star.’ Folklore is too dark, and to complicated of an album to be just pop music—but it takes those pop sensibilities, and forms a stark, gorgeous, challenging Venn diagram with ‘indie’ and ‘singer/songwriter,’ and in the center, where they all converge, is the space where this album, and Swift, currently thrives. 

The reason that, in the end, Folklore resonated so deeply with me (much more than I had anticipated, truthfully) is because it is about the messiness of being alive, in this very moment, and all of the blurred, conflicted feelings you carry with you—it’s an album that meets you where you are, and that is where I am—alive (much to my surprise), messy, and full of blurred and conflicting feelings. It is that mirror to your face, showing you the parts of yourself you don’t want to see, or want to forget about, but cannot. But, even as it pushes you into a place of discomfort or disappointment in who you are or what you have become, it is a reminder—take solace in it if you want—that you are absolutely not alone in how you feel. 

1- Just a point of clarification, and really ‘dating’ when this is all taking place, but you know, living in a pandemic, we have to wear face masks in the building when interacting with one another.

2- An aside: me taking timely breaks at work is a real source of contention between my boss and I.

3- I do not recommend listening to Folklore before you start your work day, unless you want to be really sad during your entire shift.

4- Really setting the tone here, but I was also drinking a gin and tonic, alone, while listening.

5- Swift alleges that since it’s her eighth studio album, she made eight different covers, seven of which were only available to pre-order for a week following the album’s release. I debated which to buy, when I finally ordered the album, and I went with the ‘clandestine meetings’ edition.

6- This is very petty, but I cannot help myself from ‘reviewing the review,’ because I thought that the Jillian Mapes piece on Folklore, which ran on the Monday after its release, was rushed, and got a number of things wrong about the album.

7- Something that, within the last year, I’ve found myself writing about more and more is the real difference between ‘love’ and ‘lust,’ or what you think is love verses really loving someone, and how it can all blur together and become very confusing at times. 

8- We should all just take a moment to recognize that Swift canid write the absolute shit out of a bridge in a song.

9- Describing something musical in this way probably only makes sense to me. Sorry. 

10- You know, because of the pandemic.

11- Living with debilitating depression and anxiety.

Folklore is out now digitally on CD, via Republic; the vinyl edition of the album is forthcoming before year’s end.