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Taylor Swift’s Songwriting Is at Its Peak on ‘Wondrous’ Surprise Album ‘Folklore’: Review

Only Taylor Swift could make her best album while stuck at home in the midst of a pandemic. On her first-ever surprise release, Folklore (out now), the Grammy winner proves that all she needs to make wondrous magic is a pen, some paper and a piano.

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For her eighth studio album, Swift, 30, ditched the traditional rollout and her go-to Easter egg-filled teaser videos and decided to simply let the music speak for itself. Folklore, which she announced less than 24 hours before it hit streaming services, is a stark departure from the Old Taylor — and even the New Taylor. In lieu of red lipstick, confetti and, yes, snakes, she opts for minimalism, working with her close friend Jack Antonoff and one of her musical idols, Aaron Dessner of the indie rock band The National, to create her most cohesive and experimental body of work to date.

Taylor Swift Folklore review
Taylor Swift Beth Garrabrant

To some, Folklore may not feel like a Taylor Swift album on the first, second or even third listen, but her trademark songwriting is ever-present. It’s also at its peak; songs like “The Last Great American Dynasty” (which tells the tale of Rebekah Harkness, the free-spirited heiress who previously owned Swift’s Rhode Island mansion) and “My Tears Ricochet” are lyrically sublime.

Unlike Swift’s previous albums, particularly 2019’s Lover, Folklore is not entirely autobiographical. Several songs center on characters that are figments of her imagination. The rustic, harmonica-howling ballad “Betty,” for example, takes a feminist approach but is told from the perspective of a boy named James who has a summertime affair and spends the rest of the school year trying to make it up to his girlfriend. “The worst thing that I ever did / Was what I did to you,” croons Swift as James.

Taylor Swift Folklore
Taylor Swift Beth Garrabrant

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At times, the singer makes it difficult to decipher which of the 16 tracks are inspired by her real life and which are purely fictional. Gone are the days of “Dear John” and “Style” and in are the days of “The 1,” which opens Folklore and reflects on lost love. “Invisible String,” however, is surely about Swift’s boyfriend, Joe Alwyn; a quick Google search will confirm that the actor, 29, once sold fro-yo in London and therefore influenced the line about a 16-year-old boy working “at the yogurt shop” and making “little money.”

With bare-bones production, Folklore is muted yet rich, mysterious yet introspective. Swift’s evolution is clear from front to back, especially on “Cardigan,” where she takes the form of her significant other’s “favorite” sweater (eight years after leaving behind a scarf with toxic memories on “All Too Well”). She also highlights her voice like never before on the angelic “Epiphany” and the Cranberries-esque “Mirrorball.”

‘Folklore’ Beth Garrabrant

Related: Taylor Swift's Song Lyrics Decoded

The album only has one feature, Bon Iver on the gloomy, piano-driven “Exile,” in which Swift and the folk band’s frontman, Justin Vernon, bounce off each other during an argumentative bridge (“I gave so many signs,” she protests after he claims the opposite). And while the track is a highlight, Swift easily could have forgone help and stood on her own. After all, she is a force, as evidenced on “Mad Woman,” a prequel of sorts to 2019’s “The Man” with its lyrics about being poked “till her claws come out.”

The quality of Folklore indicates that Swift is thriving in isolation, something not everyone can say. At one point, the album was a sunken treasure chest, filled with gems but closely guarded within the walls of the artist’s home. But now, it has floated to shore, and, boy, is it a saving grace for 2020.

4 stars (out of 4)

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