Not many songwriters have ever been better than Taylor Swift at opening up a window into their own life. While songwriting is often a deeply personal artform, one of Swift’s greatest strengths has always been her ability to make listeners feel like she was singing to them from the pages of her diary. Some of her greatest songs—“All Too Well,” “Last Kiss,” “Long Live,” “Soon You’ll Get Better,” “Lover”—are snapshots of important moments or milestones of her life that she felt her fans deserved to live along with her: boys who broke her heart; triumphs of her young life; her mom’s battle with cancer; the relationship that might just stand the test of time. She’s always written these stories vividly, with details that make them feel as lived-in to you as your own memories: the places, the dates, the objects, the articles of clothing, the colors, the refrigerator light. Swift got so good so early on at telling her own story that, by the time she got to her most recent albums—2017’s Reputation and last year’s Lover—the songs had begun to feel like her chance to have the last word on all the tabloid bullshit that had built up around her life. The results were thrilling, but they sometimes lacked the lovely, unguarded scene-setting she’d perfected on Speak Now and Red. Instead of feeling like diary pages, the lyrics felt a bit like op-eds—still honest, still written with the strong voice of an obviously skilled scribe, but more clearly meant for public consumption. The thing that had made Swift seem most special at first—that you could picture her writing these songs in her bedroom, with no idea whether anyone would ever hear them—wasn’t as present anymore.
That folklore, Swift’s eighth official LP, reverses this trend is just one of the many factors that makes the album a bit of a miracle. Released into the world less than 24 hours after it was announced—with little fanfare, no questionably chosen lead single, and no tiresome rollout—folklore has a small-scale feel about it that is entirely novel, especially coming from the world’s biggest pop star. There are no shots fired at Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, or Katy Perry. There are blissfully few mentions of Swift’s fame or public image. Even the songs about her love life feel matter-of-fact and observational, rather than replicating the somewhat proclamatory nature of Lover entries like “London Boy” or the title track (“Give you the silence that only comes when two people understand each other,” a line from the lovely penultimate track “peace,” is a good example). Throughout her career, Taylor has often been criticized for being too calculated in everything she does. Here, it feels like the only calculation was to do something to drown out all the bad news that 2020 has brought. Lucky for us, that “something” was to assemble a crack team of collaborators, write a bunch of songs, and make a quarantine classic. “Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time,” Swift wrote in the Instagram post that announced folklore to the world. “But the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed.” What better reason to put all your chips on the table and make the most of the hand you’ve been dealt?
What makes folklore such a miracle is that there is basically a zero-percent chance we would have gotten this album—or, frankly, anything resembling it—without COVID-19. In an alternate timeline, Swift spent last weekend playing shows for hordes of adoring fans at Lover Fest, not releasing a new album to the masses less than a year after the last one. There’s no telling whether an album of this ilk—heavily midtempo, more in the vein of indie rock or indie folk than mainstream pop, with no obvious singles or even huge chorus hooks—would have ever made sense for an artist whose plans had to revolve at least somewhat around the dynamics of a stadium tour. We all probably expected that, eventually, Taylor Swift would give up her pop crown and make the triumphant return to country music, perhaps with a Dave Cobb-produced Americana beauty (I’m still holding out hope this happens, by the way). But I doubt anyone had “a piano-driven short story collection featuring collabs with Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner from The National” in the “What’s next for Taylor Swift?” pool.
At the end of the day, though, it’s not the sense of surprise, or the pivot in sound, or even the collaborators that make folklore something worth obsessing over. Instead, the album’s secret weapon is the same thing that has always made Swift’s music special: her sheer skill as a songwriter. I described folklore above as a short story collection, and I truly believe that’s the best descriptor for it. More than any album in Swift’s catalog, folklore is about the words and the stories. The stories aren’t necessarily hers, either. What makes folklore fascinating is how it blends fact with fiction, present with past, personal anecdotes with stories about other people. Swift may be one of the best songwriters to ever turn her diary pages into songs, but it turns out she’s just as good at crafting invented narratives or telling somebody else’s tales.
For Taylor, who has never named an album without giving the matter a great deal of thought, this mix of different narrative threads is her own version of folklore. “A tale that becomes folklore is one that is passed down and whispered around. Sometimes even sung about,” she wrote in the liner notes for the album. “The lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible. Speculation, over time, becomes fact. Myths, ghost stories, and fables. Fairytales and parables. Gossip and legend. Someone’s secrets written in the sky for all to behold.” When I wrote about Jason Isbell’s album Reunions earlier this year, I said that it was about how “the very act of living changes the stories we think are worth telling about our lives.” In a lot of ways folklore is an unexpected companion piece to Reunions, and that’s because they’re both albums about stories: stories told with time and perspective, and with a little bit of fact and a little bit of invention. Isbell said the songs on Reunions were stories he’d wanted to tell for years but could never find the right words to do so in the past. Swift is similar on folklore, telling tales with a deeper wisdom and sense of empathy than we’ve ever glimpsed from her on record before.
10 years ago, on Speak Now, Taylor was already a mighty good songwriter, but she was also a self-absorbed one. She wielded her pen like a sword, giving the men (and women) who wronged her no quarter. There was heart and innocence and naivete in those songs, but also the hypocrisy of youth—the hypocrisy of stealing a groom away in one song and eviscerating a girl for stealing her man a few tracks later. On folklore, Swift is knowing enough to point out her own personal growth: “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind for the boys who broke my heart,” she sings in “invisible string”; “Now I send their babies presents.” But the best show of how far she’s come, and of the empathy she’s gained as a songwriter, is there in the stories themselves. It’s there in “the last great american dynasty,” where she charts the life history of an heiress who never quite fit in. It’s there in “epiphany,” where she inhabits the shoes of both her grandfather, on the beaches of Guadalcanal during World War II; and of a doctor in 2020, in a hospital overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. That empathy is certainly the beating heart of “cardigan,” “august,” and “betty,” a trilogy of wistful teenage love songs told in differing perspectives from three characters locked inside a love triangle with one another. It speaks to Swift’s skill as a songwriter that, in each song, you fall a little bit in love with the character she’s playing—whether it’s the despondent girl who feels like a tossed-away sweater in “cardigan,” the boy swallowing his pride for a Jerry Maguire-level apology in “betty,” or the “other woman” in “august,” left missing a boy who she knows was never really hers to lose in the first place.
These rich, heartfelt songs would have been good in any climate, but they feel particularly comforting during a time in our nation’s history when empathy seems to be in short supply. 2020, for me, has laid bare the selfishness and self-centeredness that so many people let quiet their consciences when things get tough. Hearing a great songwriter explore a dozen different perspectives, even if the songs only fleetingly touch upon the specific crises that have wrecked this awful year, is a reminder that seeing life through another person’s eyes is possible, rewarding, and constructive. It’s also a reminder that better things are out there somewhere down the road, if we can only get our shit together: beautifully languid August evenings ready to be sipped away like a bottle of wine; parties that are tasteful, or loud, or neither, or both; weddings, or dancefloors, or overseas getaways, or porches packed with friends on a summer day. “In isolation, my imagination has run wild and this album is the result,” Taylor wrote of folklore. “Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory.” To give yourself over to the album is to let yourself be whisked away into the same escapist experience, like climbing through a wardrobe and finding yourself in Narnia. It’s just the emergency exit 2020 needed.