The painfully beautiful storytelling of ‘folklore’

Taylor Swift surprised her fans on July 24 when she released her eighth studio album, folklore, which she wrote and recorded in isolation. Folklore is filled with tragically honest storytelling that blends confessional subject matter with fictional tales. While the song production of folklore is simpler than Swift’s past albums, her deft lyricism shines through. 

Unlike Swift’s past three albums, folklore does not rely solely on chart-topping pop songs but rather uses a stripped-back sound to explore complex issues such as death, grief, and heartbreak. 

The album’s folksy tone can be attributed to the writing assistance of The National’s Aaron Dessner, while Jack Antanoff, Swift’s frequent collaborator, appears as a producer on tracks such as “my tears ricochet” to lend a sense of familiarity of Swift’s most celebrated music to longtime listeners. 

Swift has never shied away from writing tear-jerking songs, and this album is filled with them. Rather than creating a sense of escapism from the COVID-19 pandemic, folklore addresses it head-on.  

“Epiphany” finds the album at its most melancholy and morbid. Swift wrote that she took inspiration from her grandfather’s experience as a soldier fighting in Guadalcanal in 1942. Swift draws parallels between the grief of war to the current health crisis: “Hold your hand through plastic now / Doc I think she’s crashing out / And some things you just can’t speak about” evokes the sense of trauma that many medical professionals are feeling. Eerily, the instrumentation near the end of the song mimics the sound of a ventilator beeping. 

Another song that conjures a sense of realism is “exile,” co-written and sung by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. This song emulates the miscommunication that often leads to heartbreak, with Vernon and Swift singing “You never gave a warning sign / I gave so many signs” in turn. The contrast of their voices and the contradictions in their lines represents a holistic approach to a break-up song—instead of prioritizing a single perspective, both voices tell the full story of a relationship. 

folklore is as refreshingly honest and heartbreaking as it is comforting. Songs like “betty” and “august” offer a break in the sadness and give the listener a sense of nostalgia for better times. The album plays out like a series of short stories that tie together the experiences of many different walks of life. Folklore requires a few listens and a box of tissues, but is worth every minute. 

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