Among them: scars and battleships. Trees and sunshine. Wine and whiskey. And cardigans. Enough cardigans that one became the subject of an entire song.
Swift announced Folklore less than 24 hours before its July 24 release, giving few hints about its contents. The one thing she did make clear, through an overhauled social media presence full of new, black-and-white photos of her, was that Folklore would have a well-defined aesthetic we haven’t seen from Swift before.
The nature-focused and unadorned imagery of Folklore extends beyond the album’s genesis; those images are identifiable in every one of Folklore’s corners and position it as different from most of Swift’s other albums. Bucking her typical promotional period entirely suggested a rebuke of her own traditionalist, tightly controlled image. That’s also obvious in the black-and-white album art set among tall trees, the eight different colored vinyl options to choose from, the choice to drop title case for all the track names, and even Swift’s decision to collaborate with indie-folk staples over her usual pop collaborators. (Bon Iver! Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner of The National!)
As part of this approach, Swift skews away from her strongly first-person lyricism. Instead of her usual pop songs about exes or even her current long-term boyfriend Joe Alwyn, which largely defined her 2019 release, Lover, the singer slows down to spin tales out of the imagery she’s cited as her inspiration. Self-isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic pushed her away from looking inward and toward crafting original stories, she wrote in the album’s introduction. “Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory. I’ve told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve. Now it’s up to you to pass them down.”
To understand Folklore, then, is to recognize that, at least on this album, Taylor Swift is often absent from the stories she’s telling. Which could be difficult to accept for the dedicated Swifties out there, eager to latch onto every line as self-referential and explicitly revealing. “These songs still have the visceral emotional connection that Swift’s fans expect from her, but they no longer seem to be encouraging listeners to trawl through the details of Swift’s life to figure out who she’s subtweeting,” wrote Vox’s Constance Grady of the album. “The focus is on the storytelling rather than the gossip.” Accepting this unique-to-Swift methodology is crucial to appreciating how strong a record Folklore is — and, beyond that, how impressive a step it is for Taylor Swift as an artist.
Folklore is best experienced as a full, complete work, but there’s a handful of individual songs that stand out as most emblematic of its…