Taylor Swift’s surprise album ‘Folklore’ reveals versatile songwriting in a new genre

"Folklore" is Swift's eighth studio album, which came out on Friday.

Iman Mekonen, Spectrum Editor 

Puzzle pieces made of black and white nature settings appeared on Taylor Swift’s Instagram account Thursday morning with no caption or context. Shortly after, she revealed the artwork of her eighth studio album, “Folklore,” with a 16-hour notice for the album’s release.

“In isolation my imagination has run wild and this album is the result,” Swift announced on social media. “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.”

Written and recorded during the pandemic, “Folklore” arrives 11 months after the release of her last studio album, “Lover.” Her seventh album was full of color and playful anthems like “You Need To Calm Down” and “ME!” but was balanced with soft ballads like “Soon You’ll Get Better” and “Afterglow.”

While social distancing, musicians have taken a step back from traditional music settings, and many are eagerly waiting to get back in the studio or on stage. For Swift, this was a moment to divert from the comfort of pop music and try something new: Releasing an album without any promotional singles. 

“Most of the things I had planned this summer didn’t end up happening, but there is something I hadn’t planned on that DID happen. And that thing is my 8th studio album, folklore,” Swift said.

Most would expect a two-year stadium tour from “Lover” or months of hints and Easter eggs in preparation of a new album, but COVID-19 has shown that some plans need a detour.

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Most of the things I had planned this summer didn’t end up happening, but there is something I hadn’t planned on that DID happen. And that thing is my 8th studio album, folklore. Surprise 🤗Tonight at midnight I’ll be releasing my entire brand new album of songs I’ve poured all of my whims, dreams, fears, and musings into. I wrote and recorded this music in isolation but got to collaborate with some musical heroes of mine; @aarondessner (who has co-written or produced 11 of the 16 songs), @boniver (who co-wrote and was kind enough to sing on one with me), William Bowery (who co-wrote two with me) and @jackantonoff (who is basically musical family at this point). Engineered by Laura Sisk and Jon Low, mixed by Serban Ghenea & Jon Low. The album photos were shot by the amazing @bethgarrabrant. Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed. My gut is telling me that if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world. That’s the side of uncertainty I can get on board with. Love you guys so much ♥️

A post shared by Taylor Swift (@taylorswift) on

The album contrasts Swift’s usual sound and replaces her radio-friendly pop music with emotional, indie-folk storytelling that complement the album’s introspective lyrics. It’s eerily reminiscent of indie-folk band Bon Iver, specifically the band’s debut album “For Emma, Forever Ago.”

Released in 2007, frontman Justin Vernon wrote and recorded the album while isolated in a remote cabin in Wisconsin as he recovered from an illness and battled his frustration with songwriting. Songs like “Re: Stacks” and “Skinny Love” are in line with Swift’s aesthetic, although they were released 13 years apart. 

It’s fitting that Bon Iver is featured on “Folklore” –– Vernon contributes deep vocals and falsetto ad-libs to complement Swift in “Exile.” It was exciting to hear Vernon, a well-known voice in the indie-folk genre, and Swift on a song together. Both “Folklore” and “For Emma, Forever Ago” share themes of nature, isolation and careful introspection.

Swift crosses into yet another genre, temporarily leaving behind pop music to combine her country history with a contemporary, alternative approach to folk.

The music video for “Cardigan” premiered with the album and painted a picture of the song’s magic. The video emphasizes the piano in Swift’s new sound as the instrument takes her through a Narnia-like adventure. The song is dark and bright at the same time, a balance observed as the scenes switch between a bright green forest and a dark cabin. 

In the lyrics, Swift hints toward the storytelling and magic elements of the album and subtly mentions Peter Pan with the line “I knew you / Tried to change the ending / Peter losing Wendy / I knew you.”

“August” lets listeners imagine a summer post COVID-19 with steady guitar strums and a pop-sounding track. Producer and musician Jack Antonoff –– who served as a longtime collaborator on many of Swift’s projects –– brings the ’80s influence shown in Swift’s song “Getaway Car” to this track about summer love.

“Seven” has a similar dream-like summer youth aesthetic to “August” and combines the pop-sounding track with new folk and country. It immediately draws similarities to the work of indie-folk songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ signature ethereal instrumentals. 

“Folklore” documents Swift’s musical evolution from country, through pop and arriving at indie-folk. It’s hard to tell what will come next from the genre-hopping singer, but this album proves it’ll come at the right time. 

Rating: 5/5

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

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