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The 6 songs that explain Taylor Swift’s new album, Folklore

On her surprise-release record, Swift takes her fans deep into the wistful woods.

Taylor Swift sits at her piano in a forest in the music video for “Cardigan.” Taylor Swift via YouTube

“It started with imagery,” wrote Taylor Swift in the preamble to Folklore, her eighth studio album. “Visuals that popped into my mind and piqued my curiosity.”

Among them: scars and battleships. Trees and sunshine. Wine and whiskey. And cardigans. Enough cardigans that one became the subject of an entire song.

Swift announced Folklore less than 24 hours before its July 24 release, giving few hints about its contents. The one thing she did make clear, through an overhauled social media presence full of new, black-and-white photos of her, was that Folklore would have a well-defined aesthetic we haven’t seen from Swift before.

The nature-focused and unadorned imagery of Folklore extends beyond the album’s genesis; those images are identifiable in every one of Folklore’s corners and position it as different from most of Swift’s other albums. Bucking her typical promotional period entirely suggested a rebuke of her own traditionalist, tightly controlled image. That’s also obvious in the black-and-white album art set among tall trees, the eight different colored vinyl options to choose from, the choice to drop title case for all the track names, and even Swift’s decision to collaborate with indie-folk staples over her usual pop collaborators. (Bon Iver! Aaron Dessner and Bryce Dessner of The National!)

As part of this approach, Swift skews away from her strongly first-person lyricism. Instead of her usual pop songs about exes or even her current long-term boyfriend Joe Alwyn, which largely defined her 2019 release, Lover, the singer slows down to spin tales out of the imagery she’s cited as her inspiration. Self-isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic pushed her away from looking inward and toward crafting original stories, she wrote in the album’s introduction. “Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory. I’ve told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve. Now it’s up to you to pass them down.”

To understand Folklore, then, is to recognize that, at least on this album, Taylor Swift is often absent from the stories she’s telling. Which could be difficult to accept for the dedicated Swifties out there, eager to latch onto every line as self-referential and explicitly revealing. “These songs still have the visceral emotional connection that Swift’s fans expect from her, but they no longer seem to be encouraging listeners to trawl through the details of Swift’s life to figure out who she’s subtweeting,” wrote Vox’s Constance Grady of the album. “The focus is on the storytelling rather than the gossip.” Accepting this unique-to-Swift methodology is crucial to appreciating how strong a record Folklore is — and, beyond that, how impressive a step it is for Taylor Swift as an artist.

Folklore is best experienced as a full, complete work, but there’s a handful of individual songs that stand out as most emblematic of its conceptualization, tone, and feel. You should listen to the entire album to form an opinion; your own enjoyment will, of course, be subjective. But in miniature, these are the six songs that explain what makes Folklore a standout album for Miss Americana herself.

“The 1,” track one

Folklore kicks off with an answer to our inevitable question: How ya doing these days, Tay? “I’m doing good, I’m on some new shit,” she sings. “Been saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’” This rejoinder is one of the few times on the album she’s plainly speaking about herself, we’ll come to learn. And knowing she’s onto her “new shit” proves sufficient an answer and a true claim, at least as far as the music is concerned.

“The 1” is danceable in a way that Swift’s album openers often are, but it’s been markedly slowed down from her usual establishing tracks. It’s less a kiss-off to anyone expecting her to stick to that older shit she used to be on and more a solitary, gray-skied stroll through her day-to-day. This quiet quality is the work of Aaron Dessner of The National, who often writes and produces songs for folky, female voices. He’s the co-writer and producer on “The 1” and on 10 other songs, each one wistful, introspective, and impressionistic — without sacrificing the unmistakably melodic pop Swift is best at.

“Cardigan,” track two

Swift released Folklore atypically, skipping past her usual hype cycle of preceding the album with numerous singles, often accompanied by pricey music videos full of famous guest stars. These singles are generally regarded by fans and critics as the weakest songs on the album, which is why it can be considered a positive that Swift skipped ahead to the album release this time. There’s thankfully no chaff on Folklore, no obvious, cloying attempts to dominate radio play.

“Cardigan” seems positioned as the album’s first breakout, however, and it’s a good candidate — precisely because it nixes any contrived Top 40 sensibilities. Instead, the song combines a memorable keyboard riff with strong imagery, as promised. In addition to the visions of cardigans (which Swift is selling in her online store, natch), we get sweatshirts, Levi’s, black lipstick; scars and bloodstains and smoke surround her. It’s a tale of a girl in love with a boy who’s betrayed her — they go from kissing in bars to him sneaking around on weekends. The song also has a music video, directed by Swift and filmed with a minimal crew overseen by a medical adviser, which really cements its first single status and Folklore’s unkempt secret garden vibes.

“The Last Great American Dynasty,” track three

“The Last Great American Dynasty” has a clear storyline to it, as Swift relays the life of someone other than herself. Rebekah, she sings, was a “madwoman” who owned a fabulous house in Rhode Island. The “Bitch Pack” would join her to play cards with Salvador Dali and drink Champagne from swimming pools. She stole a dog from a neighbor and “dyed it key lime green.” Rebekah is a “madwoman,” and Swift means that as a compliment. (A later song, called “Mad Woman,” reinforces that she’s reclaiming the term for the good of womankind.)

Rebekah lived in that fabulous Rhode Island house for 50 years, and Swift mourns her with this ode to the woman’s eccentricities. At the end, Swift ends up buying Rebekah’s old house — which, fans know, happened in real life. Rebekah is Rebekah Harkness, a wealthy heiress who died in 1982, more than 30 years before Swift purchased the $17 million mansion in 2013. Swift is memorializing Rebekah’s life and her connection to it through her singing, as she does with the subjects of the album’s other whimsical folk tales. There’s nostalgia, a touch of regret, and the setup of an inclination toward small-town fiction that runs throughout Folklore from here on out.

“Exile (feat. Bon Iver),” track four

The National’s Dessner lends a significant amount of indie music cred to Folklore. But a significant guest spot on “Exile” from Bon Iver, a.k.a. Justin Vernon, feels like Swift’s insistence to any dismissive indie music fans that she’s legit. Although Vernon has moved away from the lo-fi, cabin-made folk that made him a star in 2007 with his first album — he’s won Grammys, he’s worked with Kanye — he’s still the pinnacle of the flannel-wearing, Midwestern-nice, banjo-playing crooner. His songs have soundtracked a million weepy Tumblr posts and smooshed into every high school playlist sent to a crush for more than a decade.

Swift is undoubtedly pulling a lot of her imagery from these places, as a noted Tumblr fiend and the embodiment of cute crushin’ mixtapes. For Bon Iver to sing alongside her must be a personal win just as it is an aesthetic win for Folklore; she’s earned the approval of one of the folksiest guys in music. Heck, “Exile” really seems more like a Bon Iver song featuring Taylor Swift than anything else. (The same goes for “Peace,” a song later on the album that Vernon co-wrote.) The striking similarities between Vernon’s and Swift’s styles here will probably satisfy the all-natural, anti-establishment crowd that Folklore demands legitimacy from.

“August,” track eight

The core of Folklore is a three-song story arc about an intense young romance. While introducing a live premiere of the “Cardigan” video on YouTube, Swift explained that the arc was called the Teenage Love Triangle, with each of the three songs told from a different person’s perspective. Many listeners have concluded that the three songs included are “Cardigan,” “August,” and “Betty.” The characters in the story are named Inez, James, and, unsurprisingly, Betty; “Cardigan” is from Betty’s perspective while “August” is from Inez’s perspective and “Betty” from James’s perspective. Inez is implied to be the woman who had a summer fling with James, causing a rift between him and Betty, his true love.

Perhaps because Inez is positioned as the “other woman” here, “August” works fairly well as a stand-alone song: It serves both as the midpoint of the arc and the album. It’s also the most intriguingly ambiguous of the three songs in the Teenage Love Triangle arc, making it representative of the storytelling Swift is attempting on Folklore. We can tell with the full context that Inez asks James to jump into her car and get “twisted in the bedsheets” despite his affection for another girl. But Swift sings “August” from a place of heartbreak that fits into the trope of a difficult high school love. It’s mired in the same kind of foggy nature walk-evoking visuals that are the crux of the album.

“Betty,” track 14

Betty completes the Teenage Love Triangle storyline: Taylor is singing from James’s point of view about how Betty breaks up with him after finding out that he hooked up with Inez. It also figures into an extensive and ongoing fan theory that “Taylor Is Gay, Actually.” Already, Vulture has declared “Betty” to be part of music’s “queer canon,” for several reasons. Chief among those reasons is that Taylor Swift is named after James Taylor, so — James, Taylor ... James is Taylor.

Of course, Swift has established by this point that Folklore is a collection of fictional stories that she is retelling to her listeners, not any of her own. But it’s admittedly difficult to avoid looking for clues to the artist in their art, and anything that can reinforce the LGBTaylor theory is a win for those who believe it. There’s always at least one song on a Taylor Swift album to fuel the theory, and “Betty” is perhaps the most explicit one so far. James, whether he’s a 17-year-old boy or a 30-year-old woman, really misses his former love Betty and wants Betty to kiss him in his car again while Betty wears that cardigan of hers.

Maybe someone will develop a unified theory of Swift’s cardigan obsession next.

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