It’s hard to believe that it’s been 2 years since we followed the golden string into the folklorian woods created by Taylor Swift and had our lives forever changed. Like Narnia and Wonderland before it, the world crafted gorgeously by Taylor passed down stories of loves lost, introspection and hopes of what’s to come. It’s been a magical 2 years and the stories told here still hold the same weight- and that’s why I’d like to deep dive this phenomenal album’s best lyrics and production choices.
Swift’s collaboration with Jack Antonoff and The National’s Aaron Dessner all came about amidst the start of Covid, with every song being written, produced and recorded within the span of a few months. The low stakes process of making the album is perhaps what made it feel so special- lacking any pressure of her record label or expectations of charting. This was music made for the sake of writing- at times painful, cathartic, and exactly what was needed to survive in that insane moment.
The album’s first track “the 1” perfectly sets the tone for what’s to come on the record, describing a love that got away with a production that automatically felt like a change of pace for the singer who had previously released her pop centric album Lover less than a year before this. “And if my wishes came true, it would’ve been you,” the speaker thinks to herself on the chorus of a love that is no longer in her life. It’s heartbreakingly relatable, trying to seem as if she’s moved on and yet still thinking of them to the point of believing she sees them in the places she goes. The line that still haunts me with every listen comes in the bridge when she ponders to herself that “I persist and resist the temptation to ask you, if one thing had been different, would everything be different today?”
The album’s lead single “cardigan” is a standout among Taylor’s tremendous career, perhaps one of the best songs she has ever written. The first song in the “teenage love triangle” trilogy featured on folklore, “cardigan” is from the perspective of the character Betty looking back on her past with her partner James who put her through a lot when they were younger. “But I knew you’d linger like a tattoo kiss, I knew you’d haunt all of my what ifs, the smell of smoke would hang around this long, cause I knew everything when I was young. I knew I’d curse you for the longest time, chasing shadows in the grocery line, I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired, and you’d be standing in my front porch light, and I knew you’d come back to me,” she sings on the third verse. Everything from the lyrics to the instrumentation and the way Swift sings the track is absolute perfection and Dessner’s production is some of the finest I’ve heard in recent memory.
“my tears ricochet” is one of only a few songs on the album that have a personal stake in its story rather than the fictional tales Taylor had written with the other tracks. Her vocal delivery has an edge to it here, a clear-cut message for the man who many believe to have inspired the track- Scott Borchetta who sold Swift’s masters without her permission to Scooter Braun. Like all of the best songs on this record, it’s not merely about one thing- with Taylor’s skillful writing making it connect to her own life while leaving it broad enough for its listeners to find relatable as well. “And I can go anywhere I want, anywhere I want, just not home. And you can aim for my heart, go for blood, but you would still miss me in your bones. And I still talk to you when I’m screaming at the sky, and when you can’t sleep at night- you hear my stolen lullabies,” the swell of the production continues to build through the bridge before reaching its peak in the final chorus. There’s a rage beneath the song’s seams that only a true betrayal can trigger and it’s that emotion that leaves me in its wake every single time I listen to it.
One of my all-time favorite Taylor songs and my personal favorite from this record has to be “august”, which is the second part of the “teenage love triangle” trilogy- this time told from the perspective of a girl named Augustine who James spent a summer with instead of with Betty. If Augustine had been written by the wrong hands, she could have been merely made into a trope of the “other woman”, but with Swift as her writer, she is instead fleshed out and understood. It’s made clear that she thought this love was real and not just a summer love, which makes the listener empathize with her even more so when James goes back to Betty in the end. Here, the production is light and summery to match the summer love that James and Augustine shared and instantly feels classic. “But I can see us lost in the memory, August slipped away into a moment in time, cause it was never mine. And I can see us twisted in bedsheets, August sipped away like a bottle of wine, cause you were never mine,” she continues to break our hearts with that chorus.
If we’re talking about songs that stay with you long after the first listen, we need to mention “this is me trying” which really showcases Taylor’s ability to capture other perspectives by telling stories of a person struggling with mental illness and another struggling with addiction. This song is her way of giving credit to those who don’t always have their daily struggles acknowledged by those around them. “They told me all of my cages were mental, so I got wasted like all my potential, and my words shoot to kill when I’m mad, I have a lot of regrets about that. 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,” the second verse really hits when you feel like where you are in life doesn’t quite reach the potential you faced at a younger age- especially now that less people pat you on the back when you reach adulthood. The song itself explores how sometimes the act of trying is something only you know when the ones around you don’t know your personal struggle- and it’s truly something that has resonated quite poignantly with her listeners.
The final song in the “teenage love triangle” trilogy is “betty” which is told from James’ perspective as he shows up at Betty’s party to apologize and try to win her back after his affair with Augustine. It’s the quintessential, end of a romantic comedy ending that we all hope for as the man comes to his senses and owns up to his mistakes. Here though, it’s tinged with a bittersweet sadness as we consider how Augustine is left in the dust as James and Betty rekindle their love. “Betty, I’m here on your doorstep, and I planned it out for weeks now, but it’s finally sinking in. Betty, right now is the last time I can dream about what happens when you see my face again,” James is filled with that beautiful anxiety as he plans on the possibilities of what will happen when he shows up at the party. This song always brings me back to those moments in my life, those moments before you see the person you love after a long time and that hopefulness you feel that seeing you will mean as much to them as it does to you.
The haunting production on “peace”, mixed with the anxiety-tinged lyrics create a gorgeous balance that has continued to make this song grow on me with each listen. This is Taylor at her most personal and raw on this record, singing directly to her longtime boyfriend Joe Alwyn. She recognizes that although she tries to make her life as normal as possible for everyone around her, there’s always this dark cloud lingering over them. She can’t control what tabloids will say about them or if there’s a strange man with a camera nearby wherever they go, but she hopes that what she can control is enough for him even if she can’t give him peace. It’s very much the price of fame which has been written about time and time again over the years but never to this degree of intimacy. “And you know I’d swing with you for the fences, sit with you in the trenches, give you my wild, give you a child. Give you the silence that only comes when two people understand each other, family that I chose now that I see your brother as my brother. Is it enough?”
The album’s closing track “the lakes” continues this sentiment of finding a sense of peace in life, this time exploring the idea of someday being able to escape from the spotlight and moving somewhere like the great poets did, where they were free to just write for themselves. Inspired by a trip to the lake district in England with Alwyn, she recognized a part of herself in those writers and while she can’t run away there at this very moment, his love gives her that same sense of freedom and happiness in this time. “Take me to the lakes where all the poets went to die, I don’t belong and my beloved, neither do you. Those Windermere peaks look like a perfect place to cry, I’m setting off, but not without my muse, not without you,” she closes out the album on that final sentiment.
Taylor is at peace with her life, after all of the turmoil and betrayal she’s faced. She’s now surrounded herself with people who only serve to bring light into her life and has found a love worth leaving it all behind for. And in doing so, she’s been able to expertly explore these gorgeous, fictitious stories that she began to craft here as well as in folklore‘s sister album evermore after it.
folklore is exquisitely crafted- still as fresh on its second anniversary as it was on the first listen with surprises still being found in the background of its production and songwriting choices that still leave me wondering how someone could be THAT good of a writer. The folklorian woods are a magical place- full of comfort and heartbreak and like most of you, I continue to find myself wandering back in all over again.
Thank you, Taylor.