Taylor Swift Goes Indie in Stunning Surprise Album ‘Folklore’—and Calls Out Gaslighters and Scooter Braun
The pop star’s eighth studio album, produced entirely in quarantine, is an unexpected departure to a moodier, more reflective—and gorgeous—new sound.
With the midnight drop of Folklore, Taylor Swift’s surprise eighth studio album, the pop star proves that celebrities really are just like us—depressed and bored in quarantine. Yet while the rest of us were learning to bake banana bread and trying to remember to put pants on for Zoom meetings, Swift kept busy by producing a 16-track album containing some of her most ambitious songwriting to date.
Folklore dropped less than 24 hours after Swift first announced the project on Instagram Thursday morning. Along with a grid of black-and-white photos of the musician standing pensively in a forest, she wrote, “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.”
Everything about the no-fuss reveal indicated that this would not be a typical T-Swift album rollout. For one thing, the 30-year-old singer is notorious for prefacing her releases with months of cryptic, Easter-egg-filled social media posts that leave fans flurrying to decode album titles and references to exes. The album art also marks a new direction for Swift, with skeletal grey trees posing a stark contrast to the candy-colored pastel explosion that accompanied her last album, 2019’s Lover.
In her Instagram announcement, she explained that she wrote and recorded the music “in isolation,” and her introspection shows. Missing are the tongue-in-cheek pop anthems full of call-outs that Swift typically sprinkles between piano ballads. Instead, Folklore is subdued and somber, allowing Swift’s achingly beautiful lyrics to linger. (The heartrending love song “Invisible String” is a standout.)
A collaboration with The National’s Aaron Dessner and folk artist Bon Iver, the album feels like a musical rendering of someone’s quarantine diary. This is, after all, not exactly the moment for sparkly, stadium-ready dance music. And though the choice of collaborators may have initially raised eyebrows, it is actually completely on-brand for Swift to decide, after conquering country and pop, to give a new genre a try.
Swift is known and acclaimed for being ruthlessly autobiographical in her music, unafraid to diss those who have wronged her (ahem, Kanye West) with a witty turn-of-phase. Folklore is a clear departure, not only in its melancholy indie sound, but in the imaginative liberties Swift takes with her storytelling. In a statement on Twitter, she describes the Jack Antonoff- and Dessner-produced project as a kind of concept album on which she is “writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t.” Some of these characters include “an exiled man walking the bluffs of a land that isn’t his own” and “an embittered tormentor showing up at the funeral of his fallen object of obsession.”
One of the slyest uses of this device occurs on a track called “Betty” when, halfway through the sweet, vintage Tay Tay-style ditty about a teenage relationship, the singer reveals that she is playing a character called “James.” Still, the catchy tune—which features Swift singing lyrics like, “Betty, one time I was riding on a skateboard when I passed your house, it’s like I couldn’t breathe—” will likely give Swifties plenty to speculate about.
She also tests the limits of musical storytelling on the third-person track “The Last Great American Dynasty,” an unexpected exploration of the history of her palatial Rhode Island estate, which once belonged to an heir to the Standard Oil fortune and, later, his ostracized widow. The lyrics, with references to card games with Dalí, pools filled with champagne, and a dog “dyed key lime green,” are peak romantic Taylor Swift. It is one of the few songs on the album that she clearly had fun writing, at one point impressively rhyming “gauche” and “goes” and somehow making it work.
Interestingly, this is also one of few songs that can be clearly connected to Swift’s own experience. In the chorus, she sings, “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen / She had a marvelous time ruining everything.” The theme of the mad woman is one that recurs throughout Folklore. Beyond the fact that she seems to identify with the eccentric woman who once lived in her home, a later track titled “Mad Woman” can be read in the context of her messy public fallout with Scooter Braun and her former record label over her master recordings.
Appearing on the backend of the album, “Mad Woman” is broadly about gaslighting and men weaponizing the word “crazy” to dismiss women. “Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy. What about that?” she asks in the pre-chorus. Though it is far more subtle in its indictment of Braun than February’s music video for “The Man” (which featured Swift in drag literally pissing on a wall plastered with her album titles), the song offers a more emotional glimpse into the role sexism has played in the narrative of Swift’s fight for the rights to her own music.
However, fans of petty Taylor need not fear. Swift made sure to throw in a couple of references to Braun’s wife and yacht, proving that though she is telling other people’s stories for now, and doing a damn good job at it, she is still pop music’s reigning queen of shade.