When I picked up my phone and saw Taylor Swift’s announcement of a new album Folklore less than twenty-four hours before its release on Friday, I’ll admit it—I gasped. Where was the Taylor of endless Easter eggs and fan theories? I hadn’t heard a whisper, and I have my ear to the ground for Taylor lore. But it wasn’t out of character. This was just the coup de grâce in the games that she’s been playing with fans for years. Last year was endless hints at the album drop date, title, lyrics; this year, out of the blue, she (intentionally or unintentionally) steals the headlines from Kanye West by dropping a 16-track album completed entirely in self-isolation.
From all the internet had to offer, it looked like she was coming for indie folk. Written largely with Aaron Dessner of The National and featuring a collaboration with indie icon Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), the album’s branding was ethereal and understated, featuring black-and-white photos of Taylor wandering moodily through forests and wearing cardigans (I’ll get to the cardigans later). Compared to Folklore, last August’s candy-colored Lover looked like a circus with a brass band.
And, if I’m honest, I was dubious. I love Taylor, but the depth and complexity that I expect from indie folk—especially from Bon Iver and The National—wasn’t her wheelhouse. My fascination with Taylor has always come from the conflict between her illusion of total vulnerability and the reality of her strategic moves as a pop star, and I had my doubts about the authenticity of this sudden pivot.
The album was branded as raw, real, a homespun yarn of quarantine loneliness, memories, and imaginings. But the branding was so on point that I couldn’t quite believe in it. It was so consistent that it felt more like a theme or a brand than a new ethos—the lowercase song titles, the website transmogrified with subtle neutrals and a Papyrus-like font, the black-and-white pictures of Taylor in thrift store clothes like she was a college hipster about to break out a six-pack of Pabst and a big Russian novel in the woods.
Especially when I considered how much indie folk and alternative is on the rise, it seemed like far too shrewd a popularity move to be unpremeditated. Could Taylor pull off yet another reinvention of herself, falling with seeming effortlessness into the center of a cultural trend to steal the spotlight yet again?
A few things about the album confirmed my hesitations. Taylor’s lyrical style is sometimes a little heavy-handed for the indie folk genre—the song titles are straightforward as straightforward can be, despite their lowercaseyness, from “invisible string” to “my tears ricochet” (yikes). There’s no Bon Iver “i,i” or “Re: Stacks” going on here. There isn’t much of the lyrical ambiguity that lends fascination to The National’s musings that “I know I was the 45 percent of then” or “My bedroom is a stranger's gun room”—instead, we have the usual Taylor heartstring-tuggers like “You know the greatest films of all time were never made” and “when I felt like I was an old cardigan / Under someone's bed / You put me on and said I was your favorite.” (I very quickly tired of cardigan references—“cottagecore” can’t really hold the weight of an entire album’s aesthetic.) The little-too-pointedness that characterizes Taylor’s feminist anthem “The Man” from Lover cropped up again (though to a lesser degree) in “No one likes a mad woman / You made her like that.” The F-bombs scattered throughout the album, a first for Taylor, feel like the same bid for social credibility that they were in the cardigan-wearing hipster circle in college.
Here’s the thing, though—she somehow pulls it off. She may have been coming for Carrie and Lowell and Born to Die but, while the deepening of her musical voice is evident, she remains herself. The sounds may be indie folk, but they’re also classic Taylor. She hasn’t manipulated her voice into something it isn’t; she reverts to her vocal tropes with an ease that doesn’t feel like posing. Instead, the complexity and imagination that lurked under the surface of songs like “Starlight” and “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” seem to be bearing fruit in an intricate, widely acclaimed album that is believably “escaping into fantasy, history, and memory.”
The brutal honesty that drew us into her earlier albums but always felt a little like oversharing is less tangled with her growing personality than it used to be—now it’s softened through a lens of distance, memory, and imagination. She leads us not just through woods and fields, but across abandoned parking lots and down hospital hallways, in and out of lives real and imagined, with the sensitive storytelling that has always marked her best work. As many have pointed out, it’s a mature album. For the first time I questioned my narrative that Taylor would be gone, like every pop star, once she aged out of pop.
Once again, Taylor Swift is the sweetheart of the music world, and this time she’s annexed a new genre into her domain. In “mirrorball,” she sings about her ability to be anything others want her to be: “I want you to know / I’m a mirrorball / I can change everything about me to fit in.” I couldn’t help but remember her chilling line from “Blank Space”: “Find out what you want / Be that girl for a month.” Her chameleon-like ability to play the crowd always has left me wondering: is this really who she is, or is it an elaborate game she’s playing? Does she really love indie folk, or is she in it for the cottagecore? Is she being honest, or is she telling us a fantastical story? I think Folklore has left me with another question: why not both?