| On 1 year ago

I Loved Taylor Swift’s folklore — a concise guide for non-Swifties & poets

23 of July 2020 was like any typical day until a little post by Taylor Swift left the internet foaming at their mouths. TS8 was upon us. Less than a year after the massively successful release of Lover, we have been blessed with another album by Taylor Swift—folklore: A magical, foresty, sepia-tinged album that displays Taylor Swift’s emotional acuity and lyrical prowess at its best.

As mentioned in her Instagram post, folklore is music spun from Taylor’s imagination and an amalgamation of stories meant to be passed down just like folk tales.

Sonically, folklore is different from Lover and an even further tangent from reputation. Rather than the pure pop sound of Lover or dark electro-pop of reputationfolklore presents as a folksy, soft-tempo album.

Lyrically, folklore has the rawness and vulnerability of RED (a fan favourite and should have gotten a Grammy) but with a sophisticated glow-up. There are many parallels we can draw between the two albums, but that will be discussed later.

It is important to note there was no fanfare with folklore. There were no three-months of deliciously painful teasing that swifties (i.e., me ) devour every morsel of, which is then followed by catchy radio-friendly singles that would flood the airwaves till the eventual album release. Instead, folklore falls quickly into our eager laps brimming with Taylor’s searing wit and goth-folk sound.

If you’ve always been a casual listener of Taylor Swift, here is an in-depth guide on each song off folklore and why this is her best album yet. While I’ve thought of ranking the songs in listening order, Taylor Swift is more deliberate than most artists, and it’s imperative you experience the album chronologically before picking you favourite.

1. the 1

“In my defense, I have none
For never leaving well enough alone
But it would’ve been fun
If you would’ve been the one”

A wry and wistful beginning to folklore, “the 1” sings about one that got away through a much older and mature lens.  It reminisces that one amazing significant and pivotal relationship in your ‘roaring twenties’ that could have been the one.

Each line is imbued with nostalgia and longing: “And if my wishes came true/It would’ve been you” and muses “If one thing had been different/Would everything be different today?”. The song reflects on the highs and lows of the relationship imagines if she was the other person’s one as well.

A pensive rumination to open folklore and wonders the age-old ‘what would have been’ if that relationship had worked out.

2. cardigan

“But I knew you
Playing hide-and-seek and
Giving me your weekends, I
I knew you
Your heartbeat on the High Line
Once in twenty lifetimes”

For “cardigan”, we have also been gifted with a music video that reflects the magical, glittery quality of the album. With her piano guiding her through enchanted forests and a life raft in a turbulent ocean. A nod to how music has always been her one constant, no matter what life threw at her. Also, does she not look like a fairy princess in the video?

As for the song, Taylor Swift loves her metaphors, and “cardigan” is precisely that. The refrain: “And when I felt like I was an old cardigan/Under someone’s bed/You put me on and said I was your favourite”, describes exactly how someone can make you feel special just by simply choosing you.

A chorus with a hypnotising rhyme scheme that is so precise in their imagery such as “Dancing in your Levi’s/ Drunk under the streetlight” and “Steppin’ on the last train/ Marked me like a bloodstain”. These scenes play vividly in your head as she croons about how a relationship in your youth often leaves an indelible mark on you.

Plus, “cardigan” is the first song in a love triangle of songs and that’s all the more fun.

3. the last great american dynasty

“There goes the last great American dynasty
Who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been
There goes the most shameless woman this town has ever seen
She had a marvelous time ruining everything”

This song is fun, playful and Taylor Swift at her story-telling best. This one tells of Rebekah Harkness who used to own the Taylor’s Rhode island house and was quite the woman herself. Rebekah, who sometimes went by “Betty” (wink), was a widowed heiress that lived in Taylor’s Rhode Island “Holiday House’.

Taylor draws parallels between Rebekah’s life and hers, where they both lived under the scrutiny of everyone as the “maddest” and “loudest” woman “this town has ever seen”.

It bears a similar resemblance to the “Lucky One” in RED, where Taylor sings of an unnamed Hollywood singer that managed to slip away from the limelight.

4. exile

“So step right out, there is no amount
Of crying I can do for you
All this time
We always walked a very thin line
You didn’t even hear me out (You didn’t even hear me out)
You never gave a warning sign (I gave so many signs)”

By far, one of the favourites of the album that features a duet (!) with indie darling Bon Iver. “exile” presents as a dialogue between two ex-lovers whose version of how the relationship ended will never align.

The track is sad and melodic, with sharp and scathing lines that cut to the bone. Indignant, they ask each other “You’re not my homeland anymore, what am I defending?”.

“exile” is one that makes you feel things over your non-existent relationship. A glow-up from the “The Last Time” from RED,  which was also a duet, where ex-lovers pick up the pieces of their broken relationship.

5. my tears ricochet

“I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace
‘Cause when I’d fight, you used to tell me I was brave
And if I’m dead to you, why are you at the wake?
Cursing my name, wishing I stayed
Look at how my tears ricochet”

Aaah, the infamous ‘Track 5″ which if you didn’t know, is the extra vulnerable track on her album. This is preceded by “The Archer”, “Delicate”, “How You Get The Girl” and most famously “All Too Well” in Lover, reputation, 1989 and RED respectively.

There is a slight twist here, unlike the previous Track 5s, there is a sense of mutually assured destruction here. With the line “you can aim for my heart, go for blood/But you will still miss me in your bones” and “you had to kill me, but it killed you just the same”.

As Taylor cries out an ethereal and ghostly “(you hear my stolen lullabies)”, a signal that the obsession will never stop not even in death.

6. mirrorball

“Hush, when no one is around, my dear
You’ll find me on my tallest tiptoes
Spinning in my highest heels, love
Shining just for you”

A dazzling haze of a song, “mirrorball” is a shimmering tune about fame and the constant need for reinvention. If you watched her documentary, Miss Americana, you’ll know Taylor has talked about this necessity as a female artist to always be the shiny new toy.

Here, she sings about how she can “can change everything about me to fit in”, and they (the audience) is “drunk as they watch my shattered edges glisten”. The light tone of the song belies the painful cost of fame, where she says “I’m still on that trapeze/I’m still trying everything to get you to look at me” as she spins on her highest of heels.

It’s a double-edged sword, she’s dying to please, and we’re always hungry for the next new thing.

7. seven

“Pack your dolls and a sweater
We’ll move to India forever

Passed down like folk songs
Our love lasts so long”

If you’ve been following Taylor Swift you’ll know she hella extra, so it’s no coincidence that track seven is named “seven”. A song about the loss of innocence where she used to “scream ferociously/Any time I wanted “. “seven” is tinged with the carefree spirit and wildness only childhood offers before growing up and being robbed of this liberty.

“seven” has to be one of the most folk-like songs on the album, where golden memories and grandiose promises of running away to India will be passed down “like folk songs/the love lasts so long”.

8. august

“But I can see us lost in the memory
August slipped away into a moment in time
‘Cause it was never mine
And I can see us twisted in bedsheets
August sipped away like a bottle of wine
‘Cause you were never mine”

No surprises that “august” is track eight of the record. A song with an ephemeral quality just like a summer fling, as “August slipped away like a bottle of wine”. A casual relationship that starts like full of promise that this could be something and disintegrates before you know it.

The astute listener will realise that this is another piece of the teenage love triangle that Taylor talks about. “august” is from the perspective of the ‘other girl’. You can hear the longing as she sings “so much for summer love and saying us/’Cause you weren’t mine to lose’—bring me some tissues.

This is a cousin of “Getaway Car” from reputation, with the same love triangle situation. You have the same images of illicit affairs that start in cars with the line “remember when I pulled up and said ‘Get in the car’ “.

With light and desperate vocals of dashed hopes, you’d want a glass of wine as you listen to this.

9. this is me trying

“They told me all of my cages were mental
So I got wasted like all my potential
And my words shoot to kill when I’m mad
I have a lot of regrets about that”

For those who accuse that Taylor Swift of being a one-trick pony who writes only angry and somewhat childish breakup songs, here is ‘this is me trying” for you. Although she has written songs about subjects other than love, most people tend to gloss over this fact, assuming her to be nothing but a pensive romantic whiner.

“this me trying”, acknowledges that Taylor is not perfect and sometimes says the wrong thing. She copes with her failures be it personal or professional as she sings “I had the shinest of wheels, now they’re rusting/I didn’t know if you’d care if I came back”.

A dreamy and rueful track where she seeks forgiveness and reiterates that she is indeed trying.

10. illicit affairs

“And you wanna scream
Don’t call me “kid,” don’t call me “baby”
Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me
You showed me colors you know I can’t see with anyone else”

You can read “illicit affairs” as an extension of “august” where it also deals with the idea of infidelity but from the perspective of the other woman. Each line follows the “mercurial high” of having an affair, where it was a drug that “only worked/The first few hundred times”.

As she sings “What started in beautiful rooms/Ends with meetings in parking lots”, the anguish culminates as with “Don’t call me kid, don’t call me baby”. It’s a nuanced and sympathetic take on the complexity of having an affair and the inevitable ruin that befalls on the ‘other woman’.

11. invisible string

“Time, mystical time
Cutting me open, then healing me fine

Were there clues I didn’t see?
And isn’t it just so pretty to think
All along there was some
Invisible string
Tying you to me?”

“invisible string” has to be the sweetest song on the folklore and one that made me go ‘aww’ more than once. Even though we know that the songs on the album are a blend of Taylor’s own experiences and her imagination, I mean, “A string that pulled me/out of the wrong arms right into that dive bar”—“Delicate” anyone?

The best lyric of all: “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind/for the boys that broke my heart/now I send their babies presents”. If that doesn’t spell growth and maturity, I don’t know what does.

12. mad woman

“Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy
What about that?
And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry”

The tea is scalding in this one.

Taylor has never shied away from gender inequality between men and women and the snarky wit from “The Man” intensifies to a full-blown rage in “mad woman”. You’ve got to love how Taylor plays with the notion of the ‘madwoman’ a phrase that man has historically used to gaslight women on their right to anger.

In the song, she calls out women who have internalised misogyny with a stinging “And women like hunting witches too/doing your dirtiest work for you”. And first F-bomb of the record! Biting, direct with no holds barred, I’m glad someone said it.

13. epiphany

“Only twenty minutes to sleep
But you dream of some epiphany
Just one single glimpse of relief
To make some sense of what you’ve seen”

In “epiphany”, Taylor writes about the trauma of war and how that translates to our current, ongoing raging fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Her lulling, calming vocals juxtapose violence of war along with what front liners are facing today with “some things you just can’t speak about”.  The most poignant of lyrics, “Hold your hands through plastic now/Doc, I think she’s crashing out”.

The only peace that’s afforded between the gunfire and crashing patients are the “twenty minutes” of sleep where they dream of some “epiphany”. At the same time, there is a solidarity that ‘epiphany’ offers “With you I serve, with you I fall down”, a time where we have to come together to overcome this crisis.

14. betty

“Yeah, I showed up at your party
Will you have me? Will you love me?
Will you kiss me on the porch
In front of all your stupid friends?

If you kiss me, will it be just like I dreamed it?”

The last piece of our teenage love triangle finishes with “betty”. This time, she sings from James’ (notably a unisex name) perspective. James apologises for having the summer fling of “august”, with “If I told you, it was just a summer thing”. Hoping Betty, “standing in her cardigan” will take him back.

An adorable love song that encapsulates the lovelorn drama of teenage love, we can all relate to “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything”.

15. Peace

“All these people think love’s for show
But I would die for you in secret
The devil’s in the details, but you got a friend in me
Would it be enough if I could never give you peace?”

A song that asks the oh-so-vulnerable question of ‘Am I enough for you?’. It’s no secret that Taylor’s love life has been the fodder for the media for years and encroaches on her love life. She sings “But there’s robbers to the east, clowns to the west/I’d give you my sunshine, give you my best/But the rain is always gonna come if you’re standin’ with me “.

Her extraordinary success comes at a price, and she asks if her partner be okay with that. She promises that it’s not for show and she whispers fervently “I would die for you in secret”. Relationships always come with baggage and Taylor has a big one, but here she is offering her everything and asking ‘will it be enough, if I can never give your peace?’.

16. hoax

“Stood on the cliffside screaming, “Give me a reason”
Your faithless love’s the only hoax I believe in
Don’t want no other shade of blue but you
No other sadness in the world would do”

Love has been one of Taylor’s favourite subject matter and in “hoax” she explores this destructive and all-encompassing topic with fervour. It is a dark track filled with grim imagery where the object of her affections is compared to a “smoking gun”, “a twisted knife” and an “eclipsed sun”. Love is not always pretty, and sometimes you are entirely consumed by the love you have for your partner.

This love hurts, but it hurts so good as she sings “You knew it still hurts underneath my scars/From when they pulled me apart/But what you did was just as dark”. A love that has her “kingdom come undone”, the “faithless love” is the only “hoax” she believes in. This love is her complete undoing, but that’s what she wants as she insists “don’t want no other shade of blue but you/ No other sadness in the world would do”.

In an interview with Aaron Dessner, “the 1” and “hoax” were the final songs on the album and serves as bookends to folklore. Rightly so—if “the 1” is about wondering about a possible one, “hoax” serves as a potential foil where you are utterly ravaged by the said one.

There is another track “Lakes” but that only comes if you have purchased the album like any true swiftie, you know I bought myself a vinyl record and thrown in the cassette tape for good measure.

I’ve always appreciated Taylor Swift’s creative turns and folklore is no different. From the country music star to undisputed pop princess to now folk Indie darling, each meander has brought us even better and sharper lyrics and music with an aesthetic to die for.

folklore is truly the album of my wildest dreams in terms of music and lyrics. So, you’ll find me curled up in a dark corner, headphones on, sipping tea and wrapped up in a cardigan. And you know what, Taylor Swift did make that “indie record that’s much cooler than [her own]”.

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