Taylor Swift’s Folklore, out since July, has earned its reputation as a “quarantine album.” The use of “quarantine” as shorthand for life during the pandemic often feels misleading. Only the wealthiest among us can afford to retreat into a luxurious solitude and learn instruments, finish novels, or, in Swift’s case, record an album.
Folklore, however, really is about being a sad rich person stuck at home. Swift has never sounded so morose, so wounded, so isolated. After years of synth-pop formalism, the album marks a return to the folksy autumnal warmth of Red, but it’s quieter, carried mostly by piano plinking and guitar plucking, embracing a stripped-down singer-songwriter format she’s dabbled with in the past but has never sustained over a whole album. Lyrically, Swift has always written fictions (“confessional” songs are still fictional) but these songs are explicitly fanciful daydreams. She jumps between first and third person, often examining the same situation from multiple perspectives (“Cardigan,” “August,” and “Betty” apparently concern the same teenage love triangle, and “Illicit Affairs” would fit in nicely with those three).
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For once, the routine comparisons between Swift and Joni Mitchell ring true. Mitchell played similar tricks with perspective on The Hissing of Summer Lawns, another album about sad rich people stuck at home. Mitchell’s characters were trapped in 1970s suburban houses, with popcorn ceilings and dusty wall-to-wall carpeting, beset equally by ennui and asbestos. Folklore takes place in a high-rise apartment whose interior has been decorated with fake wood cabinets and a fireplace, to look rustic. Here, Swift’s characters light scented candles and bake homemade bread, pining for a simpler life. Especially on the tracks produced by Aaron Dessner of The National, an engaging cognitive dissonance is generated by the way ostensibly acoustic instruments are manipulated electronically; as they move in and out of focus they sometimes soften into an ephemeral, shimmering blur.
The achievement is Swift’s. Critics have attributed Folklore’s silken ache to Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (who duets with Swift on “Exile”), just as many credited Max Martin for the electronic minimalism of 1989 — anything, it seems, to avoid acknowledging Swift as the era’s most protean pop master. The mock pastoral aesthetic Dessner and Vernon introduce suits Swift, who has a history of writing songs about autumn leaves, white horses, and other romantic images. But these are still Swiftian pop songs, expertly crafted melodic jewels with sharp choruses and characteristically long, developed bridges; the novelty lies in the hushed intimacy of her performance.
If Dessner and Vernon were in charge, Folklore would be as inarticulate as their own music, which often slathers a rustic aura in textural and lyrical vagueness, so the sense of implicit yearning is unsullied by potentially intrusive concrete detail. Instead, Swift translates their aesthetic into a more literal pop mode. “Exile” — on which Swift’s and Vernon’s voices intertwine while telling two totally different versions of the same breakup — is lovely; so is “Invisible String,” whose miniature hook, plucked out on acoustic guitar, resounds through a cavern of empty electronic space and bounces brightly.
Predictably, Folklore is sometimes too quiet for its own good; fans of her pop bangers will be forgiven for tapping their feet and wondering if this music ever picks up. “Epiphany,” her moving tribute to COVID’s casualties, would have been more moving with a few more sonic ingredients — even one more strummed guitar. “Peace” and “Hoax,” the final two songs, move at such a crawl they seem designed to end the album on a ponderous note of closure. (The piano figure on “Hoax” would charm if only sped up a little.)
Of all the rosy fantasies on this album, Folklore’s evocations of childhood cut deepest. The teenage love triangle songs work on their own, but collectively they comment on each other in amusing ways: the simmering “Cardigan” and dreamy “August” address the same boy. He speaks in “Betty,” where his clueless cheer makes the fuss over him funny to imagine — before a short, fiery guitar lick, around the three-minute mark, divides the song and reminds you of the emotional stakes. The maturity and self-knowledge Swift gives these characters comes across as both naive and touching, especially when she sings (as on “James”) “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything, but I know I miss you.”
On “Seven,” she looks back even further and recalls playing with a childhood friend, who is gradually revealed to have an abusive father, and who later moves away. (“I think you should come live with me/and we can be pirates, then you won’t have to cry,” she promises.) Layers of sadness accumulate; she’s not indulging in nostalgia so much as remembering a moment of childhood nostalgia, her young understanding of what happened now brought into relief by her adult understanding. The light, restrained piano and strings move briskly, as the swooping melody pushes her into her ethereal high range.
Given the album’s windswept, dusty sound, several of the most affecting moments come when she includes a little synthesizer polish for contrast, especially when “Mirrorball” gallops over a grandly propulsive beat, the drums skittering across the reflective electronic surface. “My Tears Ricochet” starts faintly, its chorus simply moaning backup sighs, but the orchestration builds, and when the drum machine comes in halfway through, the tension is riveting. She sings from beyond the grave, addressing an estranged lover who showed up at her funeral. Swift has often used intricate tricks of pop songwriting to pluck heartstrings; here, the plainspoken simplicity of “Look at how my tears ricochet” is all she needs.
Since cottagecore is supposed be a cheerful fantasy, in which a bucolic ideal is projected as a corrective against urban dystopia, the lingering sadness on Folklore alarms. Swift is not longing to escape urban modernity so much as mourning its passing, since the narrative world she inhabited on previous albums is already gone. Hence, her turn away from the illusion of autobiography; a songwriter stuck at home can only escape into the past or imagine alternate futures. Throughout her career, she has specialized in crafting romantic fantasies so enticing you long to believe. But now that fantasies are all she has left, suddenly they’re bleached of color.
As public space disappears and nature burns, the spare, sepia-toned production on Folklore sounds hollowed out; as friends and family members die, Swift sings as a ghost. Though she’s a friendly ghost, she offers no reassurance. But she’ll sit and cry with you for a while.