Have you ever listened to “All Too Well” and said, “Great, now can I have 16 more of these?”
That’s essentially what Taylor Swift has done on “Folklore,” her most introspective and emotionally raw album yet. The 10-time Grammy winner, who is known for her meticulously orchestrated album rollouts, broke from tradition and surprise-announced “Folklore” on Thursday, less than 24 hours before its Friday release.
After embracing her pop side on her past three albums, including last year’s “Lover,” the former country star is switching up her sound once again. This time, she’s taking a page from some of her songwriting heroes including Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carole King. While plenty of pop luminaries such as Justin Timberlake (“Man of the Woods”) and Lady Gaga (“Joanne”) have taken detours into stripped-down folk/soft rock, none have made the transition as seamlessly as Swift, who reminds us once again that she’s the most gifted songwriter in music today.
“Folklore” features a song, “Exile,” with Bon Iver, and writing credits from The National’s Aaron Dessner and Swift’s frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff. Every track on the decidedly un-radio-friendly album is a treasure trove of evocative metaphors and diary-like lyrics, managing to capture familiar feelings in ways you didn’t know were possible.
That should come as no surprise to any fan of Swift, who delivered the poetic double punch of “Cornelia Street” and “Death by a Thousand Cuts” just last year. But the gentleness and unhurried pace of “Folklore” give her words more room to breathe, allowing them to hit that much harder.
“I persist and resist the temptation to ask you / if one thing had been different / would everything be different?” she wonders on “The 1,” the breezy but deceptively sad opening track. “In my defense I have none / for digging up the grave another time / but it would’ve been fun / if you would’ve been the one.”
The album brims with vivid imagery, as Swift likens herself to a favorite sweater on “Cardigan” and a “Mirrorball” that will “show you every version of yourself tonight.” Album standout “Invisible String” is perhaps the prettiest love song in Swift’s entire catalog, but is not without her biting wit: “Cold was the steel of my ax to grind for the boys who broke my heart / now I send their babies presents.”
“Folklore” is undoubtedly Swift’s most melancholy album. (Try not to cry listening to “August,” in which she wistfully recounts a summer love gone south in achingly specific detail.) But the 30-year-old has also never sounded more confident or mature. Continuing to move away from her previously PG lyrics, she’s included explicit language. In the album’s opening line, she announces “I’m doing good / I’m on some new s—” and drops multiple F-bombs in later songs “Betty” and “Mad Woman” (an apparent lyrical first for Swift).
Given Swift’s public battle with Scooter Braun and former label Big Machine Records over ownership of her music, it’s impossible not to read the latter as a searing rebuke of the men – and women – who have tried to control or criticize her. “No one likes a mad woman / you made her like that,” she sings over soft piano and strings. “Taking my time / ’cause you took everything from me / watching you climb / over people like me.”
After years of being the media’s punching bag, it’s incredibly moving to hear Swift take back her power on “Folklore,” her second album on Republic Records and second that she has completely owned as well. Eight albums and 14 years into her career, it’s also thrilling to watch Swift continue to grow and evolve, showing that she can still surprise us in more ways than one.