Taylor Swift’s career has been a story of change. Starting as a teenage country musician still navigating high school, Swift began incorporating more elements of pop into her songs, culminating in 2014’s “1989.” Swift herself has noted her evolution, declaring the “Old Taylor” dead in 2017’s “reputation.” However, her new surprise album “folklore” might be her most surprising departure yet.
While her pop albums are filled with energetic songs that would feel appropriate being performed in a stadium, the more laid-back “folklore” feels like a product of self-isolation. Although it is not her first foray into folk (see her 2011 single “Safe and Sound”), Swift takes more creative risks in “folklore” than she has in the past.
Swift still talks about her own life in the new album. In “invisible string,” she romanticizes her current relationship, singing “And isn't it just so pretty to think all along there was some invisible string tying you to me?” The song manages to strike a reflective yet also lighthearted tone, with Swift remembering a waitress who “said I looked like an American singer.”
In other songs, however, Swift is more experimental with the narrator. “the last great american dynasty” tells the story of Rebekah Harkness mostly from a third-person perspective. Harkness — a wealthy woman who married the heir of Standard Oil — owned the Holiday House in Rhode Island, which Swift bought in 2013. The song says Harkness never fit into the community as “new money,” but cheerfully tells listeners that “she had a marvelous time ruining everything.” Near the end, the song shifts perspectives to Swift herself, who compares her own experiences in the Rhode Island community to Harkness’.
In “exile,” a duet with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Swift and Vernon take different sides of a broken-up couple. Throughout the melancholy song, there is a palpable sense of loss. Both Vernon’s and Swift’s characters give contrasting views of what went wrong, with Vernon singing that “You never gave a warning sign,” only for Swift to answer that she gave “so many.”
In one of the most interesting ideas on the album, Swift tells the story of a love triangle from each person’s perspective through three different songs, which are widely speculated to be “cardigan,” “august” and “betty.”
In addition to a sad piano melody, “cardigan” has a quiet, faltering electric sound that becomes more audible in the outro, giving the song an eeriness. In “august,” Swift’s voice carries an airy and pensive quality, and the song exudes a sense of longing. “Betty” carries a feeling of regret yet hope as the 17-year-old narrator tries to win Betty back, presumably the narrator of “cardigan.” The song, which prominently features a harmonica, feels like it could have been from her 2008 album “Fearless.”
Ultimately, it is these narrative risks that make “folklore” stand out among the rest of Swift’s albums. There are plenty of callbacks and similarities to her older work, but “folklore” also sees Swift branching out. The result is arguably her best songwriting yet.