By Lauren Wong and Stepheny Gehrig
While the rest of the world was baking and making TikToks, Taylor Swift was writing an album. On July 23, Swift surprised the world with the release of her eighth studio album “Folklore.”
The album’s release comes almost a year after the release of “Lover” and only six months after her Netflix documentary, “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana.” The 16 tracks of “Folklore” showcases Swift’s journey as she changes her narrative and public image.
“It started with imagery. Visuals that popped up into my mind and piqued my curiosity,” Swift said on her social media platforms. For the first time, none of the tracks stand out as radio hits. The album proves that Swift is no longer making music in an effort to people-please.
The songs illustrate stories of adultery, innocence and heartbreak. Swift said, “I created character arcs and recurring themes that map out who is singing about who. For example, there’s a collection of three songs I refer to as ‘The Teenage Love Triangle.’ These three songs explore a love triangle from all three people’s perspectives at different times in their lives.”
Of the few noteworthy songs on the album, the second track “Cardigan,” is a melancholy piece about being used in a relationship. In the first verse, Swift references her past evolution as she sings, “Vintage tee, brand new phone,” similar to the branding of the “Red” album and “Sequin smile, black lipstick,” a callback to her outfit at the 2016 Met Gala during her “Reputation” era.
Accompanied by soft instrumentals, Swift furthers the idea of being manipulated in a relationship as she sings, “And when I felt like an old cardigan/ Under someone’s bed/ You put me on and said I was your favorite.”
“Cardigan” is the first song of “The Teenage Love Triangle,” where she sings, “Chase two girls, lose the one,” in reference to the songs “Betty” and “August” which are featured later in the album.
“Exile,” featuring Bon Iver, gloomily examines the difficult feelings that two past lovers face when seeing each other. Swift and Bon Iver both sing “I think I’ve seen this film before/ And I didn’t like the ending,” which are eerily similar to the final lyrics of Swift’s 2010 song “If This Was A Movie”: “It’s not the kind of ending you want to see now/ Baby, what about the ending?”
As opposed to Swift’s 2010 track, which explores the feelings of being utterly in love, “Exile” divulges the complicated emotions that are tied to the ending of a relationship and the hardships of letting someone go: “I’m not your problem anymore/ So who am I offending now?”
“August,” the most notable track of the album, is the second song of the love triangle. The song evokes a similiar tone to her earlier albums as it tells the story of a summer fling and the heartbreak it brought: “And I can see us twisted in bedsheets/ August sipped away like a bottle of wine/ ‘Cause you were never mine.”
Despite being the most memorable song on the album, the lyrics of “August” do not provide the listener with a memorable story. Ultimately, the song’s upbeat melody makes it the most appealing and radio-worthy track on the album.
“Betty,” the final part of the love triangle, begins with a nostalgic harmonica tune. The names of the parties are revealed to be Betty, James and Inez — James’ gender is never revealed leading to much speculation from fans online that “The Teenage Love Triangle” is sapphic.
The lyrics, “Yeah, I showed up at your party / Will you have me? / Will you love me?” reveal that the narrator has shown up unannounced to proclaim their love for Betty. The love triangle is a complicated and messy one, in which the narrators appear to feel as if their worlds are ending. The tracks highlight Swift’s ability to artistically intertwine stories.
The songs “Exile” and “Betty,” written by both Swift and William Bowery, sparked a lot of conversation with fans online as they speculated that Bowery is Swift’s former partner, Harry Styles. Bowery collaborated with Swift on two of the three love triangle songs.
Not only do fans suspect Styles as Bowery, many noticed subtle nods to Styles’ latest album, “Fine Line,” which was released on Swift’s birthday, throughout “Folklore.” Specifically, the thematic similarities between Swift’s music video for “Cardigan” and Styles’ music video for “Falling” are uncanny as they both illustrate the singers underwater and playing a piano.
Similarly, in “Illicit Affairs,” Swift sings, “Don’t call me baby,” an idea that is all too familiar to fans of Styles as he sings in “Cherry,” “Don’t you call him ‘baby’.” However, the most striking nod to Styles in “Folklore” is in the song “August.” Swift’s vocals and instrumentals during the last minute of the song parallel the last two minutes of Styles’ song “Fine Line.”
“Invisible string,” reflects on the love story of Swift and long-time boyfriend Joe Alwyn. “And isn’t it just so pretty to think /All along there was some / Invisible string / Tying you to me?” is an analysis of her past relationships and experiences. The song is full of eerie but detailed imagery, and its title represents “A single thread that, for better or for worse, ties you to your fate.”
The lyrics “For the boys who broke my heart / Now I send their babies presents” are speculated to be an ode to Swift’s ex Joe Jonas, whom she wrote “Forever and Always” about in 2008. The lyrics are almost unnecessary to the story, but amplify Swift’s beliefs that her past is what led her to Alwyn. The song takes the audience through the couple’s love story and makes the audience feel as if they were there, creepily lurking and watching Swift and Alwyn.
The closing track “Hoax,” feels like a final goodbye to a toxic relationship. The lyrics are raw and full of hopelessness: “You knew it still hurts underneath my scars / From when they pulled me apart / You knew the password so I let you in the door /You knew you won so what’s the point of keeping score?”
The somber lyrics are accompanied by a soft piano and orchestra that emphasize the loneliness that Swift felt. In an interview, Aaron Dessner, Swift’s co-writer for “Folklore,” said that the track was added as a bookend to the album. “There’s sadness, but it’s a kind of hopeful sadness. It’s a recognition that you take on the burden of your partners, your loved ones, and their ups and downs.”
“Folklore” is a manifestation of Swift’s talent and evolution from a hopeful teenage girl to a secure and mature 30-year-old woman. Although the album is a shift from pop to indie-folk, the lyrics are filled with the storytelling techniques Swift is known for.
For the first time, the stories told are not relatable ones that the audience can place themselves in. Despite the fact that the story is hard for the audience to relate to, the themes in the album are reminiscent of Swift’s older works which makes “Folklore” bittersweet. Although the album proves that Swift’s talent for storytelling has only gotten stronger, “Folklore” as a whole fails to stand out.
The release of “Folklore” signifies the end of Swift’s pop era and the beginning of the next.