A Review of Taylor Swift’s ‘Folklore’

Wylly Willmott

As with any major moment in Taylor Swift’s life, I remember exactly where I was when her 8th studio album, folklore, was announced.

Laying in bed the day after my birthday (aka the start of Leo season), I opened instagram to probably the best present ever, as much as I love paw patrol swag. 

Captioning a black and white photo of herself standing in a grove of trees, Swift casually announced that she had written and recorded an entire 17-song album over the last 4 months… and was releasing it at 12pm EST that night.

I think we can all agree she had the most productive quarantine out of anyone.

The lead up to folklore was very un-Swift like; there were no red-herring lead singles, no gradual shift in the color scheme of her instagram feed, and no months of easter eggs and content promotion. There was just folklore, and the album was as much of a change for Swift as the marketing that accompanied it. 

Like with 1989, Swift switched it up for her 8th album, this time exploring the indie/alternative genre. On a project with as rich story-telling as this one, the minimalist production really allows her greatest musical strength to shine: her lyrics.

Besides folklore’s sound, another key difference between the late July release and her previous work is the subject of her songs. As the title suggests, the majority of the tracks are not autobiographical, but fictional stories like folklore tend to be. As she said in a post the night of the album’s release, “I began… writing about or from the perspective of people I’d never met, people I’ve known, or those I wished I hadn’t.” Listeners who didn’t realize that not every track was about Swift’s life were quick to ask questions. Rampant on Twitter were rumors that she had come out in a song (see “betty”) or broken up with her longtime boyfriend (see “the 1”), while in reality many of her songs merely explored the lives of characters she created. Despite the confusion it caused, I think the diversity of perspectives on folklore is what makes it one of Swift’s strongest bodies of work, a stark contrast from the single emotion and perspective present on Lover (we get it Tay, you’re in love). 

15 Taylor Swift Zeigte Sich Jetzt Mit Schriftzug Auf Dem Ganzen Arm |  Taylor swift 13, Taylor swift, Flapper dress
© 2014-2019 Taylor Swift Switzerland

The shift in tone and pace was definitely appropriate. The sadder themes on folklore are more representative of the mood I think we’ve all been in for the last 8 months.

So finally, in honor of this issue coming out Friday the 13th (Taylor’s favorite number), here is my personal ranking of all 17 tracks:

17. the lakes (bonus track)

While I love the chorus, the verses and bridge are nonsensical and petty to the point that I can’t even get behind, which says a lot. It is also going to bug me, probably forever, that the bridge doesn’t rhyme. It’s a bonus track for a reason.

Best lyric: “Take me to the Lakes, where all the poets went to die.”

16. epiphany

For it being a song about the pandemic, Swift did about as good of a job as she could. I simply do not want to hear about covid anymore. For me, music is an escape, not a way to relive this (horrible) reality. The track is also even slower than the others, which says a lot on this album. Regardless, it was really interesting how she connected the ICU nurse experience with her grandfather’s in World War II.

Best lyric: “Crawling up the beaches now / Sir, I think he’s bleedin’ out / And some things you just can’t speak about.”

15. this is me trying

Definitely some of the best imagery on the album. My favorite thing about the track is how much vivid description and unique or twisted metaphors there are in it. 

Best lyric: “Pulled the car off the road to the lookout / Could’ve followed my fears all the way down” and “They told me all of my cages were mental / So I got wasted like all my potential.”

14. mirrorball

For some reason I don’t like this one. I think she’s singing too high or something, but the bridge is pretty good. 

Best lyric: “I’ve never been a natural / All I do is try, try, try.”

13. peace

A very mellow track about what Swift feels are her shortcomings in her current relationship. I really like the lyrics, but there isn’t a whole lot of variation in the sound.

Best lyric: “Your integrity makes me seem small / You paint dreamscapes on the wall / I talk shit with my friends / It’s like I’m wastin’ your honor.”

12. exile (feat. Bon Iver)

While I feel bad ranking this masterpiece so low, especially because of how well it polled with the OES crowd, the track is a little repetitive to me. It is fun to try to sing as low as Bon Iver, though.

Best lyric: “I can see you starin’, honey / Like he’s just your understudy / Like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me / Second, third, and hundredth chances / balancin’ on breaking branches / Those eyes add insult to injury.”

11. illicit affairs.

This one has really grown on me recently. Perhaps it’s because of the multitude of #SATwords you can learn by listening (illicit, clandestine, mercurial…). Or it might just be the killer outro. 

Best lyric: “And you know damn well / for you I would ruin myself.”

10. the last great american dynasty

Top 10. Everything from this point on is beyond elite, including this track. Written about the hard-partying widow who owned Swift’s Rhode Island home before her, she draws an interesting parallel between the woman and herself. TLGAD also wins points for being by far the most upbeat and fast paced song on the album.

Best lyric: “And in a feud with her neighbor / She stole his dog and dyed it a key lime green.”

9. betty

This is Taylor’s most #yeehaw song in awhile. Another first here is that she sings from a boy’s perspective. 

P. S. I was only slightly offended by the line “I’m only seventeen / I don’t know anything.”

Best lyric: “I was walking home on broken cobblestones / Just thinking of you when she pulled up / Like a figment of my worst intentions.”

8. august

This is one of the songs on folklore that reminds me of the old Taylor, like, Speak Now era, which is always a good thing. And for the record I am very #teamAugust, which is why I have appropriately ranked this song above betty. For those of you who don’t know, one of the stories Taylor writes about in folklore is what she calls the “teenage love triangle.” The characters in the story each have a song written from their perspective. James has “betty,” Betty has “cardigan,” and the second girl has “august.” Girl two gets no respect, not even a name, so collectively the internet has named her August after her song, which I think is appropriate. The premise of the track can be summed up with the line “you weren’t mine to lose.”

Best lyrics: “Back when we were still changing for the better / Wanting was enough / For me, it was enough / To live for the hope of it all / Cancel plans just in case you’d call.”

7. hoax

This is definitely an unpopular opinion, but I love “hoax.” In my mind it’s essentially peace 2.0: really strong imagery, but with more variation in pace. There are also a lot of allusions to other songs Swift has written and key moments in her life, which is fun to find as a fan.

Best lyric:  “Stood on the cliffside screaming ‘Give me a reason’ / Your faithless love’s the only hoax / I believe in” and also the way she sings, “my kingdom come undone.”

6. invisible string

This is another cute song if you have ever been invested in Taylor’s love life. It’s by far the most personal song she has written about Joe Alwyn, her current boyfriend, as she has kept their relationship much more on the low than ones in the past. From a literature standpoint, there’s also a lot to love about this track. The verses will forever be the example in my head of the literary device, hyperbaton, and the entire concept of an “invisible string” was one first made famous by Jane Eyre, a book we’ve all read or will read at sometime in OES English.

Best lyric: “A string that pulled me / Out of all the wrong arms right into that dive bar / Something wrapped all of my past mistakes in barbed wire.”

5. mad woman

As much as I love “Blank Space” and “The Man,” “mad woman” is by far Swift’s most effective commentary on sexism. Perhaps because of its subtle and matter-of-fact tone, she manages to shed light on a variety of perception issues that women face in society, without sounding as whiny as she has been criticized for in the past. Swift states “And women like hunting witches too / Doing your dirtiest work for you,” owning the role females have in perpetuating misogyny, and lines like “She should be mad / Should be scathing like me / But no one likes a mad woman,” and “Everytime you call me crazy / I get more crazy / What about that?” more simply describe that persona she created in “Blank Space.” While the themes, sexism and Swift’s fight to own her own music, are loud in this track, it’s also just a good song.

Best lyric: “And you’ll poke that bear till her claws come out / And you’ll find something to wrap your noose around.”

4. seven

To me, this is one of the most interesting songs on the album. It tells the story of a character, possibly Swift, and a childhood friend. While this track about seven-year-olds is innocent, it’s not necessarily a happy song. In it she sings “I’ve been meaning to tell you / I think your house is haunted / Your dad is always mad and that must be why / And I think you should come live with / Me and we can be pirates / Then you won’t have to cry.” Track 7 is also filled with nostalgic imagery that brings you back to simpler times.

Best lyric: “And though I can’t recall your face, I still got love for you.”

3. my tears ricochet

As a track 5, you already know going in it’s going to be one of the best songs on the album, as that’s the spot where Swift puts her most vulnerable work. While she describes the track in her announcement as being about “an embittered tormentor showing up at the funeral of his fallen object of obsession,” this is one of the tracks on the album that is clearly about her life. Swift has been in a very public battle with the owner of her former record label, Scott Borchetta, for the right to own the music she’s created. While the first few minutes of the song are a little slower than I might like, the second half makes up for it and more. Absolutely God tier. 

Best lyric: (literally the whole bridge/song) “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.”

and

“You had to kill me, but it killed you just the same / Cursing my name / wished I stayed / You turned into your worst fears / And your tossing out blame / Drunk on this pain / Crossing out the good years.”

2. the 1

This has to be Swift’s most lowkey breakup song. Like ever. But as dramatic as I am, it’s still one of my favorites to listen to. It’s extremely calming and a sort of therapy for anyone who thinks Taylor should have ended up with Harry Styles. Believe it or not I don’t fall into that camp, but regardless the way she sings “fun” and “the one” is better than therapy…  and almost as good as AB’s self help articles.

Best lyric: “Roaring twenties, tossing pennies in the pool / And if my wishes came true / It would have been you.”

  1. cardigan

An impossibly basic choice, I know, but I’m just as shocked as everyone else that Taylor actually made the best song on the album the lead single (for evidence of past mistakes see “ME!”). While the verses are mediocre at best, it’s almost on purpose to build anticipation for the greatest choruses and bridge I’ve ever listened to. Ever. The best lyrics are simply just the whole song, but here are my highlights:

“But I knew you / Dancing in your Levi’s / Drunk under a streetlight” 

“Your heartbeat on the highline / Once in twenty lifetimes” 

“You drew stars around my scars / But now I’m bleeding / ‘Cause I knew you / Stepping on the last train / marked me like a bloodstain / I knew you / Tried to change the ending / Peter losing Wendy”

“But I knew you’d linger like a tattoo kiss / I knew you’d haunt all of my what-ifs”

“I knew I’d curse you for the longest time / Chasing shadows in the grocery line”

Cover image taken from Taylor Swift’s ‘cardigan’ music video via YouTube