Released with little warning at the end of July, Folklore was recorded during lockdown between Los Angeles and New York, with remote production by Aaron Dessner of the National and Jack Antonoff. The cottage imagery was conjured up by a marketing campaign as unsubtle as the music itself was delicate. But the escapism it offers is very real. Making few references to the conditions that brought about its existence, it inhabits a world of doomed teenage romance, waspy knitted cardigans, and beguiling, glamorous women wearing impossibly high heels.
Each Swift album comes with a story and corresponding aesthetic – sleek and sophisticated on 1989, gothic and dangerous on Reputation, pastel-hued and positive on Lover. This time, the story was about the songwriter going back to basics with an album of folksy electronica, the colour palette a tasteful monochrome. To a degree the project echoed the ultimate male musician cliche – gruffly heading into the woods in search of authenticity – yet Swift has never needed to assert her songwriting bona fides, a core part of her brand since her teenage debut. Instead, a year of cancelled tour dates allowed her to make an album without having to consider the nosebleed seats, the result wistful, romantic and adorned with entrancing melodies.
Swift has always been able to capture small, intimate moments with just a few words. Folklore expands the focus from her personal relationships to imagined characters, widening the emotional and narrative range. (Another album about her “London boy”, actor Joe Alwyn, might have proved tiresome.) The Last Great American Dynasty, about 20th-century socialite Rebekah Harkness, is a perfectly self-contained short story: crisp, acerbic, affecting. Moving away from more obviously biographical songs allows for timelines to intermingle, as they do in one’s memory: alongside songs about illicit trysts in luxurious rooms, the interconnected songs Cardigan, August and Betty are set in a world of homerooms and skateboards. Sweeping, Lana Del Rey-tinged melodrama suffuses the songs, alongside introspection, self-doubt and regret, deepened by a new richness to her singing.
Occasionally, reality intrudes at the log cabin. The second half of the album drops the pace, becoming more meditative, even bleak. Epiphany looks at the final moments of a person’s life: “Someone’s daughter, someone’s mother / Holds your hand through plastic now,” Swift sings, blending her grandfather’s experiences in the second world war with the imagined experiences of a healthcare worker during the pandemic. And when her lyrics move beyond the vengefulness that has been her recent trademark to examine the dynamics of rage, it is impossible not to think of her legal battle to gain ownership of her back catalogue, a reminder that even the most established women in music are still vulnerable to the whims of powerful men. “What did you think I’d say to that? / Does a scorpion sting when fighting back?” she sings on Mad Woman. “Before I learned civility / I used to scream ferociously,” goes the deceptively pretty Seven.
Whether you’re in a cabin in the woods or locked down in your living room, thoughts have felt louder and more intrusive than usual this year. Folklore found a moment of stillness in the turmoil, turning even the darkest musings into something sparkling and beautiful.