In a surprise, Taylor Swift announced the release of her eighth album, Folklore, on Thursday. Her accounts were suddenly flooded with grayscale photos taken in the woods—a clear departure from the bubblegum hues of her last album, Lover—and the all-lowercase track titles telegraphed an understated maturity. Twenty-four hours later, the album is out, and you may be feeling happy, free, confused, and/or lonely, potentially all at the same time. We’re here to help/answer all of your questions.
1. Wait, Taylor dropped an album?
To reiterate: “Before this year I probably would have overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed,” Swift wrote in a message posted on her social media accounts.
2. And there was no buildup for it?
Actually, no! You should be pleased with this development; not only do we have 16 new songs to cherish, we avoided the extremely stressful lead-single-that-sounds-nothing-like-anything-else-on-the-record cycle that has been part of many of her more orchestrated album rollouts.
3. Who did she work with on Folklore?
There are some new collaborators here: The National’s Aaron Dessner cowrote or produced 11 of the 16 songs and is credited on drums, piano, bass, electric guitar, Mellotron, and synthesizer, his multi-instrumentalist chops likely proving useful on an album produced in quarantine. Swift has been a longtime fan; it’s unclear if the genesis of this collaboration was a bonding moment during filming for the “You Need to Calm Down” music video in which Taylor and Antoni from Queer Eye mutually professed their love for the National. Dessner presumably also connected Taylor with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who adds his voice to “Exile,” a gorgeous track about disillusionment. (Taylor still needs to stop taking the back seat on duets, though that’s a more easily justified choice with Vernon than it was with Boys Like Girls.)
Additionally, Jack Antonoff is obviously still here—he gets production credits on six tracks including standouts “August” and “Betty.” His contributions are typically synth-y, where Dessner leans more on piano. Antonoff has now been a part of Taylor’s past four albums.
Lastly, there is also a mystery collaborator named William Bowery, who gets writing credits on “Exile” and “Betty.” We’ll get back to that.
4. OK. How does this album fit with the rest of her work?
Taylor’s albums usually have a couple tracks that harken back to the previous album or wind up connecting them to the next. It was hard to guess which tracks on her seventh album, Lover, would end up being those links, since that record was a bit of a stylistic pu-pu platter. In hindsight, “The Archer” and “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” bridge the gap. Folklore is Taylor’s first album to be classified as “alternative” and is a pretty significant departure from the chart-chasing pure pop of her past three albums. Her delivery was already more direct, and less treated, on Lover than on 1989, but here the surrounding instrumentals are even more subtle. The soft waves of piano and plucks at guitar strings verge on orchestral, particularly on the songs with Dessner. It still feels like Taylor, though, because her expert songwriting, bildungsroman obsession, and plaintive delivery are still there in spades.
5. When did she write this?
In her announcement, Taylor said she wrote this music “in isolation”—and I’d venture a guess that the “Kitty Committee Studio” cited as the location for the vocal recordings on this album is her home in Los Angeles. Dessner wrote in a tweet that Swift approached him in “late April” and that he “thought it would take a while for song ideas to come and I had no expectations as far as what we could accomplish remotely. But a few hours after sharing music, my phone lit up with a voice memo from Taylor of a fully written version of a song—the momentum never really stopped.” This narrative—Taylor bowling over some producer or other with an entire song she crafted in an afternoon—also surrounded her last two releases, “Only the Young” and “Christmas Tree Farm,” and seems to reflect how she’s writing these days. The difference is that, while “Only the Young” and “Christmas Tree Farm” are hooky and serve their intended purposes well, they operate at a lower plane, emotionally and musically, than most of the songs on Folklore. This is a quarantine album through and through, in both construction and aesthetic. And as the first major one of its kind, it’s a strong entry.
6. Anything else new?
7. Is it fall now?
Yes. Taylor embraced cottagecore and wrote a song called “Cardigan,” therefore it is now fall.
8. Are any of these songs about Karlie Kloss?
Glad you asked. Hours after Taylor released album art in which she stands, alone in the woods, among enormous trees, Kloss posted a photo on Instagram where she … is standing in the woods hugging an enormous tree. It does not stop there.
Multiple songs on the album tell the story of a love between someone named “Betty” and someone named “James.” Taylor claimed in the YouTube chat for the “Cardigan” music video premiere that these are characters in a made-up “high school love triangle” she chose to write about. The three relevant songs are “August,” an album highlight from the perspective of the other woman who stole James’s affections for some brief summer moments that “slipped away like a bottle of wine / ’cause you were never mine;” “Betty,” where James wonders whether he can make up for his dalliance with a surprise appearance at a party; and “Cardigan,” where Betty processes betrayal and forgiveness and how, when James shows up on the front porch at the party, “I knew you’d come back to me.”
This is all possibly (read: definitely) a lovely ruse. Consider: Taylor is named for James Taylor. Kloss’s middle name is Elizabeth. And what’s a nickname for Elizabeth? Betty. Boom. Kaylor forever.
9. Are any of these songs about Kanye West?
Thank goodness, no. “Mad Woman” could, on first listen, be interpreted this way, but a closer read says that those four minutes of venom are a message to Scooter Braun, whom Taylor has been publicly wrestling with ever since he bought out Big Red Machine and took ownership of her master recordings last summer. The lyric “What do you sing on your drive home,” directed at a music industry exec, is Taylor at her most wounded and vindictive since “Dear John.” (The implication here being that her target doesn’t create anything worthwhile of his own.)
Now, West is somewhat cosmically linked to this release (of course): He was potentially set to release music on the same day Folklore dropped, and he’s also collaborated with Bon Iver in the past. But, given that most of West’s release dates are written in pencil, the overlap here thankfully feels like a coincidence.
10. Are any of these songs about Rebekah Harkness?
That’s a weirdly specific question, but yes. “The Last Great American Dynasty” tells the story of Harkness, a divorcée from St. Louis who became one of the wealthiest women in America when she married Standard Oil heir William Hale Harkness in 1947, and subsequently caused quite a stir in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, where she and Harkness owned a beachfront home called Holiday House. Taylor delights in the story where Harkness fills a pool with champagne, dyes a neighbor’s dog green, and blows her fortune “on the boys and the ballet,” before landing the song with a twist: “Fifty years is a long time / Holiday House sat quietly on that beach / free of women with madness, their men and bad habits / and then it was bought by me,” sings Taylor. You see, she bought Holiday House in 2013, where it has since been the setting for Tom Hiddleston’s most embarrassing moment and a spate of disputes with neighbors. You can guess whom Taylor relates to. And in true Rhode Island fashion, the song has a fabulous bridge.
11. Is Taylor still dating that guy?
His name is Joe Alwyn, and yes, presumably, though only a few songs seem to be about him (because the rest are about Karlie Kloss). The song “Invisible String,” about two lovers looking back on how their fates were intertwined all along, is clearly Alwyn-inspired. “Teal was the color of your shirt when you were 16 at the yogurt shop,” she sings; Alwyn worked at a London froyo joint called Snog when he was a teen (really). We stan a low-cal dairy king.
12. Hang on, though: We never got back to William Bowery?
Ah, yes. The two writing credits given to William Bowery are potentially Alwyn’s. His composer great-grandfather was named William Alwyn and he and Swift attended the same event in October 2016 at the Bowery Hotel in New York. And we know Taylor Swift—a.k.a. Nils Sjoberg—loves a pseudonym.
13. So, does this mean Taylor doesn’t need to get dumped to write great songs?
It was clear she had no problem finding source material 10 years ago when she met the guy from Owl City one time and then wrote “Enchanted,” but yes.