For Swift, isolation yields storied lyrics, musical maturation

Quarantine twisted these past six months into an endless void. As days blurred into weeks and spring stretched into summer, I spent hours reading, drawing, painting and listening to music to find ways to liven my boredom and forget about my loneliness. Taylor Swift provided one of my most treasured doorways to escapism with the release of her latest album, “folklore.”

In late July, Swift surprised the world with the announcement of her eighth studio album, a collection of 16 songs she wrote during the pandemic. As the world started to freeze and endless performances and music tours were canceled (including Swift’s own tour for her previous album “Lover”), Swift took these months of isolation and filled them with sentimental musings, reflecting on her past experiences with love and heartbreak while delving into new stories.

“In isolation, my imagination has run wild and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness. Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory,” Swift captioned one of the numerous greyscale photos she posted on Instagram in promotion of her new album.

Though it was released only a year after “Lover,” “folklore” strays from the typical pop of her recent albums. Swift’s newest songs adopt a soothing, softer tone, featuring hypnotizing blends of piano and acoustic guitar, a contrast to some of her other hits. While I would often jump around my room blasting “Cruel Summer” or “Dancing With Our Hands Tied,” I now find myself swaying contemplatively to “invisible string” and “illicit fairs.” Each song shapes an enchanting individual story of love and heartbreak, but the album as a whole depicts the next chapter in Swift’s journey as a maturing artist. As each album deviates from the one before it, she continues to craft music with her trademark resonant lyrics while demonstrating her fluidity as a musician.

While showing off Swift’s musical talent and range, “folklore” also exhibits her power as a storyteller. The album features a rich cast of characters, with each song focusing on a different narrative. “It started with imagery…Pretty soon these images in my head grew faces or names and became characters,” Swift said in the introductory note she posted on her Twitter account when announcing her album. She goes on to list various examples of the perspectives she incorporated into her songs.

“An exiled man walking the bluffs of a land that isn’t his own, wondering how it all went so terribly, terribly wrong,” Swift lists, alluding to her collaboration with Bon Iver in “exile.” The duet tells the story of two lovers contemplating their past relationship. Throughout the song, there are moments where one voice echoes the other. Together, Swift and Bon Iver’s lead singer Justin Vernon pose the question of “How did we get here?” with the use of a metaphorical figure in exile, capturing the calamity of a broken relationship: “You were my crown, now I’m in exile, seeing you out.”

Another character: “An embittered tormenter showing up at the funeral of his fallen object of obsession.” Starting with sweet choral vocals, “my tears ricochet” presents the perspective of a ghost haunting her toxic past lover. “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,” Swift repeats throughout the song. The chilling lyrics exemplify Swift’s mastery of songwriting; she creates sorrowful yet impactful images that twist the beautiful song into a tale of mourning and devastation.

“A seventeen-year-old standing on a porch, learning to apologize.” Out of all of her newer songs, “betty” reminds me the most of Swift’s country roots. With a guitar strumming and an accompanying harmonica, the song brings me back to the days of “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story.” But the most distinctive features of the song are its connections to two other songs in the album; “betty” forms a love triangle with “cardigan” and “august,” each song spotlighting a different voice in this tangled story of teenage love. In “betty,” Swift assumes the voice of a teenage boy named James who cheated on his girlfriend. “I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything/But I know I miss you,” Swift sings as her character struggles to mend his relationship with Betty.

Swift continues in her exegesis, “A misfit widow getting gleeful revenge on the town that cast her out.” In “mad woman,” she revives the theme of witch hunts in a song that focuses on female anger. “And there’s nothing like a mad woman/What a shame she went mad/No one likes a mad woman/You made her like that,” Swift sings, accompanied by the brisk, urgent beat of a piano and drums. One of my favorite songs in the album—her use of sarcasm and irony artfully enhances the message and essence of the song—“mad woman” captures how frustrating it can be when society tries to associate female emotion with insanity.

Swift’s new album offers a library of stories to get lost in. Just as one can escape into fictional worlds by opening a book or turning on a movie, “folklore” serves as a gateway to the realms of one’s imagination; with beautiful compositions and mesmerizing lyrics, this collection of songs made from and for isolation is some of Swift’s best work.

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