Eavesdrop on any Twitter thread between creatives during the last few months, and you’ll inevitably find conversations about artistic paralysis—and self-immolation derived from artistic paralysis. After all, while stories abound about how creativity is flourishing despite the global pandemic, that’s not a comfort to those who can’t stop doomscrolling or find themselves awake at 3 a.m. with crippling anxiety. Not everyone has the capacity at the moment to come up with a great novel or hit song; sometimes a successful sourdough starter is more within reach.
Taylor Swift is one notable exception to this rule. “Most of the things I had planned this summer didn’t end up happening, but there is something I hadn’t planned on that DID happen,” she wrote on Instagram on Thursday: an entirely new 16-song album, folklore, written and recorded in isolation and unveiled to the world with less than a day’s notice before release.
That Swift would be able to create a fully realized body of work is no surprise. Her work ethic has always been admirable, largely because it’s so immune to outside distractions. As a songwriter, Swift is unflappable, her observational faculties razor-sharp and keen, even when dealing with serious stuff: harsh critics, traumatic breakups, personal anguish, family stress, and now a pandemic.
But it’s clear being forced to alter 2020 plans compelled Swift to jettison precedent. While she again worked with long-time collaborator Jack Antonoff on folklore, she also teamed up with several intriguing new creative partners. These include Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who co-wrote and sang on “Exile,” and multiple members of The National. Aaron Dessner co-wrote or produced 11 of folklore’s 16 songs, while his twin brother Bryce contributed occasional orchestration, and drummer Bryan Devendorf and touring member Ben Lanz also took part. The album’s credits reveal even more collaborators, who contribute strings, horns, and other lush, luxurious instrumentation.
Unsurprisingly, folklore is a different album from what we’ve heard from Swift before. Although honeyed piano is prominent, gone are the brash beats and rainbow-hued textures of recent vintage. Instead, songs incorporate shivering strings, hushed synthesizers and keyboards, and subtle splotchy grooves. Songs echo other artists—the dreamy haze of Cocteau Twins (“august”) or Sarah McLachlan’s glacial piano work (“epiphany”)—and exude majestic orchestral-folk vibes. But it’s not correct (or fair) to say this is Swift fronting The National, or her releasing her own Man Of The Woods. If anything, folklore often feels like the photo negative of 1989, an album that also possessed a cohesive sound and a vision driven by texture and atmosphere.
This direction makes a lot of sense for Swift. The most striking tracks on her previous two albums—the introspective piano ballad “New Year’s Day” and the dusky, watercolor-tinted “Lover”—were relatively unadorned and lyrically vulnerable. On Lover especially, Swift refined the always-precarious line between personal confessions and universal sentiments. “Soon You’ll Get Better,” a tearjerking song about her mom’s cancer, was an emotional suckerpunch with both broad and specific appeal.
This songwriting progression paralleled her personal evolution. Both Lover-era interviews and the 2020 documentary Miss Americana found Swift becoming more comfortable finding a balance between her public and private lives. “I needed to make boundaries, to figure out what was mine and what was the public’s,” she told Rolling Stone. “That old version of me that shares unfailingly and unblinkingly with a world that is probably not fit to be shared with? I think that’s gone.” Yet as her increasingly vocal social media posts underscore, she’s choosing to speak up when it matters—and is now making it even more explicitly clear what matters to her.
Swift also brings her usual sharp-eyed specificity to “exile,” on which a protagonist eviscerates a jealous ex: “I can see you staring, honey / Like he’s just your understudy.” And she weaves in personal details as bread crumbs throughout the lyrics, referencing her Rhode Island residence, Holiday House (“the last great American dynasty”), notorious reputation (“Cold was the steel of my axe to grind / For the boys who broke my heart / Now I send their babies presents”), and carefree youth (“Before I learned civility / I used to scream ferociously / Any time I wanted”).
In this way, the Dessners are the perfect foils for Swift’s ideas on folklore. For all of their ornate arrangements, the brothers’ collaborations exude the kind of sonic intimacy that centers vocalists, and gives them the space to stretch out. For example, Aaron Dessner recently collaborated with former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe on “No Time For Love Like Now,” a brittle and gorgeous song with nuanced, delicate singing. On folklore, this approach appears on the ornate standout “invisible string”—a gorgeous folk song with stair-step acoustic riffs and heart thump-steady vocal backbeats—a variety of colors (green grass, a teal shirt, gold leaves) come together to explain a great romance.
With references to an “American singer” and a dive bar, it’s tempting to view “invisible string” as being about her long-term relationship with the British actor Joe Alwyn. However, folklore’s protagonists aren’t necessarily perfect analogs to Swift herself. “In isolation my imagination has run wild and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness,” she wrote about the songwriting. “Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory.” folklore’s songs are about widows, love triangles, the indelible imprint of young love, infidelity, Swift’s grandfather. Taken together, they resemble someone flipping through snapshots housed in a yellowing photobook.
“Before this year, I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed,” Swift wrote. “My gut is telling me that if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world.” In the end, folklore may or may not reflect a permanent musical shift for Taylor Swift. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be a grand step forward—that it’s a whimsical and intriguing album offering new insights into Swift’s work is completely enough.