‘folklore’ Is Taylor Swift’s Saddest — And Best — Break-Up Record Yet

'folklore' is a crushing break-up record about pain.

Taylor Swift folklore break-up album

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The career of Taylor Swift is divided into two halves: before Reputation, and after it.

That record, a plastic and surprisingly kinky collection of pop textures, was the total summation of a style that Swift had been flirting with for years. It was big, loud, and self-effacingly ridiculous. It didn’t just abandon the sensitive style of Old Taylor. Infamously, with one campy answering machine message, it shot her and her legacy dead.

But with Reputation, Swift had backed herself into a corner. Such a dramatic heel turn can’t easily be topped, and Swift’s whole gambit has been about releasing albums each more maximalist than the last. She had nowhere to go — especially given that the response to Reputation from everyone but the faithful was mixed to actively hostile.

So she burnt everything down and started again. Lover, the record she released a mere 11 months ago, swapped Reputation‘s toxic name-calling with exaggerated, child-like joy. Even the titular track, the record’s most serious and mature song, soaked in gaiety like bread sopping up treacle. It responded to Reputation by flipping the excess of that record inside out, serving as the shadow version of her most controversial album.

folklore, her newest record, is a response to Reputation too. But rather than trading one type of full-throated energy for another, it is instead a softer, sadder record. It’s still about pain, as Reputation is. ‘mad woman’, a song about being gaslit, shares the paranoid yet defiant energy of ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, while ‘betty’ trades harmonica howls for the whipping snake of ‘Call It What You Want’.

But for maybe the first time in her career, Swift has dismantled the apparatus of the pop machine that has surrounded her since her debut. And because of that scarcity, not in spite of, she has released one of the best albums of her career.

folklore Is A Record About Loneliness

Part of that new, stripped-back direction has been forced on Swift by quarantine, of course. In a statement that he posted to social media, Aaron Dessner, the record’s key creative collaborator and a member of celebrated indie group The National, revealed that much of it had been written remotely. He would send Swift ideas; she would respond with tweaks of her own, trading ideas like schoolkids passing notes under their desks.

In that way, folklore is a record shaped by quarantine. But it’s also a record about it. It is an album about loneliness and rejection; about feeling as though you are being passed by. ‘The 1’, the saddest opener in Swift’s back catalogue, sees the singer reckoning with a new kind of quiet. “Waking up alone,” Swift ruminates, her voice swimming amongst Dessner’s gentle strings. “But we were something, don’t you think so?”

Swift has written about break-ups and let-downs before, of course — for a while, the big joke was that’s all she wrote about. But on folklore, the self-assurance has been drained out of the choruses. There are no bombastic statements of self here, just bittersweet acknowledgements that lessons have been learnt.

On ‘exile’, a duet with that other great pop artist who retreated to the woods for some quiet, Bon Iver, Swift sounds actively exhausted by the prospect of having to hurt like this again. “I’ve seen this film before, you are not my homeland anymore,” she sings, her voice like broken glass thrown across concrete. On ‘my tears ricochet’, she says she is dead to the person who once most mattered to her; on ‘august’, she sifts through old memories, before deciding her lover never really was hers anyway.

Maybe this is quite literally a break-up album. There are numerous references to infidelity, and fans are already guessing that the “you” referred to over the course of proceedings is Swift’s one-time beau, Joe Alwyn. But even if it’s not precisely autobiographical, it’s still a catalogue of pains, either real or imagined. Swift used to make great fun out of listing her grievances. Here, she takes no joy in it. By ‘illicit affairs’, just over folklore‘s halfway mark, her voice flattens until it is gossamer thin.

Once, she used to writ her trauma and hurt large, making it a mesh on which she sewed flowers. That’s not what is happening here. Here, she is merely surveying a landscape pockmarked by craters, singing what she sees.

There Is Still Light Here

And yet it would be wrong to imply that folklore is nothing more than a crushing experience in self-flagellation. Like For Emma, Forever Ago and like Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night, all of her anguish has given Taylor Swift a startling amount of clarity. She sounds more confident than ever before; more comfortable when it comes to expressing herself through subtler pleasures, rather than the bombastic excesses of her early career.

‘the last great american dynasty’, the closest folklore comes to a pop single, is a statement of self, while ‘seven’ cuts right to the trembling, pained point. All this hurt has clarified Taylor Swift’s world, clearly. She knows herself, she knows the people who have caused her pain, and she knows how to express how that pain has changed her.

On ‘mirrorball’, a haunted last dance of a song, she strings together one of the most devastating choruses of her career — devastating precisely because there is still light here; because she has not given up; because she still believes that she can say things in a song, and have those things heard by people who understand her.

That is what lingers after the album’s sixteen tracks have collapsed into a pool of ashy coals and embers — the sense that Taylor Swift knows herself better now than ever before. She doesn’t emerge from ‘hoax’ triumphant, exactly. But she emerges from it with her eyes wide open, having located the source of her hurt, and hopeful that maybe next time might be better. “No other sadness in the world would do,” she sings. And then around her, the album switches off, like a light.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.