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Taylor Swift Is Singing About More Than Taylor Swift—and Rediscovering Herself in the Process

On ‘Folklore,’ the pop star mixes stories from the perspectives of other people with her own and delivers a stripped-down album that recalls some of her best work 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Taylor Swift sings the words “I’m on some new shit” within the first 16 seconds of her new album, Folklore, which was released Friday at midnight after just 16 hours’ notice, and the new shit she’s on is mid-2000s Sad Beardo Languishing in a Grayscale Log Cabin melancholia, but yes, yes. She sings the words “Standard Oil.” She sings, for the first time on an album, the word “fuck,” and she sings it on two different songs, including repeatedly on the chorus of a song called “Betty.” On “Betty,” she sings lines like, “Betty, one time I was riding on my skateboard / When I passed your house / It’s like I couldn’t breathe” from the perspective of a 17-year-old character (??) named James who mentions a gossipy friend named Inez, and did you know Taylor Swift was named after James Taylor, and did you also know Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively’s daughters are named James and Inez, and so maybe Betty is the name of their third name-not-yet-publicly-announced kid, or maybe “Betty” is “queer canon,” or both. She sings a duet with Justin Vernon, a.k.a. Bon Iver, the alpha and omega of Sad Beardo Languishing in a Grayscale Log Cabin melancholia.

She sings a doleful and lovelorn song called “Cardigan” (on her old shit), and a doleful and pissed-off song called “Mad Woman” (on her more recent shit), and a doleful and semi-erotic song called “Illicit Affairs” (huh). She sings a doleful love song called “Peace,” as in, “I could never give you peace.” On 11 of Folklore’s 16 tracks—not including a presumably doleful bonus track, “The Lakes,” available on Folklore’s eight (8) deluxe vinyl editions, eight (8) deluxe CD editions, and one (1) deluxe cassette edition, all of which is definitely on the music industry’s recent shit—she collaborates with Aaron Dessner, he of SBLIAGLC superstars the National. And verily, the mood throughout Swift’s eighth album is downcast and wintry in the extreme, with nary a palette-cleansing and radiantly doofy “London Boy” or “Look What You Made Me Do” or “Stay Stay Stay” in sight. Let’s just say 2020 is the only year of our lifetimes when it made sense for Taylor Swift to release this album in July.

I like Lover, her pastel-heavy and much poppier 2019 album that got a way longer (and more arduous) industry rollout, better. Higher highs, fascinating lows, way more variety and flamboyant weirdness (remember “False God”?) overall. But there’s no denying that Folklore, easily the most subdued and monochromatic Swift album yet, paints a rich inner landscape with just that one color (iron gray), and it rises to the grim occasion of sinking into a maudlin reverie worthy of this terrible year of global unease and self-quarantine. It’s a Cling to a Grand Piano Bobbing in a Stormy Ocean album for a Cling to a Grand Piano Bobbing in a Stormy Ocean era. Never a bombastic singer as either country stars or pop stars go, Swift sounds as muted as ever here, contemplative and relatably downbeat even when she’s singing a whole-ass song about the vibrant woman who used to live in her $17.75 million Rhode Island mansion.

Yes, “The Last Great American Dynasty,” as upbeat and propulsive as this record gets, is a very explicit tribute to Rebekah West Harkness, the eccentric multiple divorceé and Standard Oil heiress/widow who filled her Rhode Island mansion’s pool with champagne and her fish tank with scotch; “stole her neighbor’s dog and dyed it key-lime green,” a splendid detail after Swift’s own master-songwriter heart; and upon her death in 1982, had her ashes placed in a $250,000 urn designed by Salvador Dalí. (This song is also your first opportunity to hear Swift sing the word “bitch.”) Naturally, Harkness has inspired multiple lengthy explainer blog posts in the past 72 hours, because Swift wrote a song about her, because Swift owns her house now. (The refrain “She had a marvelous time ruining everything” becomes “I had a marvelous time ruining everything.”) And wow is it impressive, genuinely impressive, how charming this song is given the fact that it’s a white pop star, in July 2020, singing a song about her $17.75 million Rhode Island mansion.

“The Last Great American Dynasty” is also your first big clue that some of the songs on Folklore aren’t supposed to be about Swift at all. As she explained via Twitter, “I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t.” The album’s single best lyrical moment, on the extra-spare but also extra-melodious “Invisible String,” does nod to her reputation:

Cold was the steel of my ax to grind
For the boys who broke my heart
Now I send their babies presents

Which is a killer Taylor Swift line, if we’re honest, but overall it’s a relief that there’s far less overt tabloid intrigue and ax-grinding on Folklore—a relief to those boys, a relief to whoever’s listening, and most likely a relief to her, too. “This Is Me Trying,” one of the album’s most luscious and intense songs, is so regretful and failure-tinged and booze-soaked that you can tell it’s fictionalized, or at least heavily romanticized:

They told me all of my cages were mental
So I got wasted like all my potential

(Couldn’t be her.)

And my words shoot to kill when I’m mad
I have a lot of regrets about that

(Definitely her.)

I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere
Fell behind all my classmates and I ended up here
Pouring out my heart to a stranger
But I didn’t pour the whiskey

(Doubt it’s her.)

I just wanted you to know
That this is me trying

Yep. Even at its most destitute, the writing is so sharp and specific, as luminous as it is dolorous, that there’s no mistaking who wrote it. Meanwhile, given the track’s gauzy lusciousness, there’s also no mistaking who produced it: her old pal Jack Antonoff, who from Lana to Lorde to the Chicks is now contractually obligated to assist every stormy pop megastar, and who somehow manages not to make them all sound the same, usually. He also pitches in on Folklore’s best song, the lovely and stunning “Mirrorball,” a low-key prom theme that depending on your age and disposition might remind you of anyone from the Lemonheads to Sarah McLachlan to Soccer Mommy. Though again, the specificity of both Swift the artist and Swift the public persona shines through:

I’m still a believer but I don’t know why
I’ve never been a natural
All I do is try, try, try
I’m still on that trapeze
I’m still trying everything
To keep you looking at me

A decade or so ago, the very notion of country/pop star Taylor Swift singing with art-pop star Bon Iver would’ve been the duet that launched 1,000 poptimism-themed think pieces, but in 2020, “Exile” is just a pleasantly subdued dashed-romance piano ballad that makes a whole lot of sense even if iti doesn’t raise much of a ruckus. “You never gave a warning sign,” Vernon laments as the song crescendos; “I gave so many signs,” Swift moans, overlapping and undercutting him nicely. I have always just assumed that the fabled “indie record that’s much cooler than mine” that Swift derisively sang about on 2012’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” was a Bon Iver record, but it might’ve been a record by the National instead. Regardless, it’s remarkable how natural and logical she sounds now, collaborating with Vernon and Dessner, these people who a lifetime ago were regarded by some as the kind of Serious Artists Swift could never aspire to be.

But “Betty,” which is semi-buoyant and country-adjacent enough to harken all the way back to Swift’s 2006 full-Nashville debut—there’s some harmonica on it, too—will remind you how sensitive and sly a songwriter she is and has always been. Connecting lyrically with both “Cardigan” and the extra-wistful (and semi-erotic) “August,” the song wraps up what she’s describing as the Teenage Love Triangle, loaded with Easter eggs and deeper meanings bound to keep very intense people on the internet busy for months.

This is Taylor Swift very much on her old shit, thrilling conspiracy theorists and electrifying her many detractors as surely as her biggest and loudest fans. Insofar as the term ever meant anything to anybody, Folklore is as close as she’s liable to get to making an indie-rock record, forlorn and understated and cautiously optimistic, the songs blending gracefully together just like, one presumes, her self-quarantine days. You can almost taste the champagne slowly filling up her pool. And against all odds, you don’t begrudge her for it.