The new Taylor Swift album came when none of us were expecting it, and for the first time since Beyoncé pioneered the stealth drop seven years ago, it feels like that means something. Swift’s catalogue is animated by twitchy legacy anxiety: the fear that lovers will misremember key moments from a faded relationship; the determination to affect history on your own terms, with carefully considered messaging, lest someone canonize you incorrectly. This artistic preoccupation pierces her public behavior, too, and while much of the pop sphere has become increasingly content to fuck with industry precedent as discs have given way to streams in the last decade, Swift has always done album rollouts by the book.
folklore, though (which comes less than a year after last August’s candy-colored 18-track pop behemoth Lover), arrived with a tweet, a small list of collaborators (The National’s Aaron Dessner chief among them), and a black-and-white photograph. On Lover, Swift sounded increasingly unbothered, settled into something like adult contentment and approaching the kind of bird’s-eye songwriting she’d been teasing for years. Still, there were lingering Hater Jabs that read like reputation hangovers, and with a few notable exceptions, it was easy to graft personal details onto its tracks, which largely interrogated the bright-gold glow of hard-won love. Not so this time around. Free from arena tours and cleansed of autobiographical pretense, folklore sees Swift composing liberated fictions. It’s the album she has been threatening to make for a decade, and she made it in three months, remotely, without telling her record label. It is immense.
It opens with piano, a loping beat, and a delightfully direct statement of purpose: “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit,” Swift sings. “Been saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’” The rest of the first track, “the 1,” is the most chilled-out breakup song you can imagine, lightyears from the victim/victimizer shades critics have long accused Swift of coloring in. There are no betrayals to trace, no apologies for either party to make. Time passes, things change, and it’s nice to wander down hypothetical paths sometimes, but now is now. That patience and lack of clean-lined definition permeates the record.
So many Taylor Swift songs are about gunning for omniscience, being frustrated by the bounds of your own perspective. One of the first lines on 2012’s Red is “We are alone with our changing minds,” and Speak Now deep cut “Last Kiss” hinges on the refrain “All that I know is I don’t know how to be something you miss.” “All Too Well,” the jewel in her songwriting crown, is all about the tyranny of memory, how sometimes it burns so bright that the only solace we have is in imagining the holes it must also be searing in the people it’s tethered us to.
Rather than continue struggling against the limits of her own vantage point, on folklore, Swift often ditches it entirely. Whole swaths of the album’s 16 tracks are explicit character songs, told from the perspectives of jilted teens, remorseful skater boys, vengeful ghosts, wounded soldiers flickering in and out of consciousness. Sometimes it’s impossible to tell whether Swift is pulling from her own experience, and that fact finally draws the curtain on the theatre about Living and Loving in Public she’s been producing for the last 12 years. By refusing to delineate fact from fiction, she pulls us in closer than ever before, rerouting focus that might leak into wondering whether that was a Jake Gyllenhaal jab back toward the staggering craftsmanship that’s always carried her best work.
“august” is a gauzy, windswept stunner, regretful but animated by the same sense of acceptance that animates “the 1” (“August slipped away into a moment in time/’Cause it was never mine”). Shoegazey “mirrorball,” which carries the “sounds like Mazzy Star” torch from older Swift cuts like “Lover” and “Sad Beautiful Tragic,” packs a “Hang the DJ” reference inside a metaphor that shouldn’t work but does, beautifully, as Swift compares herself to a disco ball who will “show you every version of yourself tonight” and gets gawked at by partygoers, “drunk as they watch my shattered edges glisten.” “betty,” which blasts in with some startling Blonde on Blonde harmonica, feels like Swift teaching a masterclass on her own perspective-shifting love songs, from “Mine” to “I Wish You Would.” It also includes the album’s single Swiftiest lyric, when a remorseful young narrator waits for the ex he’s wronged to answer her door: “Right now is the last time I can dream about what happens when you see my face again.” No one else writes about the thrill of suspension so deftly.
The sound on folklore is overtly tasteful in a way we haven’t heard from Swift since a few fleeting moments on Red, courtesy of Dessner and his coconspirators from mopey Brooklyn dad rock royalty The National. “epiphany” splits the difference between The Antlers and Kate Bush, with a wall of strings and dripping French horns. The stark “peace,” quite possibly the best thing here, is built from a pulse, two bass lines, and the occasional intrusion of some tumbling piano. “seven” could be an Iron and Wine track if not for the singsongy verses.
A lesser personality might get subsumed by all that handsome sonic restraint. But whenever you’re listening to a bona fide Taylor Swift Song, you get the sense that there’s something irreducible about her. It’s not necessarily her voice, though she’s honed it into a hell of an acting tool over the years; it’s not just her lyrics, which are usually impressive but sometimes gather additional power from their dark, unnameable simplicity (“Treacherous,” from Red, somehow swells to three times its size via the alchemy of perfectly assembled, largely anonymous word-shards). Throw her over a bleating Max Martin beat or some shiny Nathan Chapman country-pop, and Swift always breaks through: knowing, unknowable, full of feeling, even if she’s been stranded in hostile musical territory.
On folklore, finally, there’s nothing working to reduce her. It’s not an album free of tension (hardly!), but free of resistance. For the first time ever, she sounds like an adult saying exactly what she wants to say, without the conspicuous calculation that’s both marred and bolstered her over her 14 year career. The album art, which dwarfs Swift in the frame by surrounding her with trees that stretch well above our field of vision, signals the shift—each of her past seven record covers center her in close-up. “Are we out of the woods yet?” she implored over and over again, itchily, on 1989, waiting for a sign she might finally be able to relax.
“Nope,” she answers on folklore. “I wonder what else is in here with me.”