Taylor writes one of the best albums of 2020, possibly even the best album of 2020.
Now I would say I am a fan of Taylor’s work, I enjoy a lot of her songs and albums, 1989 is an incredibly good pop album, and Red another really solid release. Reputation was a low point and Lover was a return to form somewhat, if lacklustre. Folklore though is Taylor’s best album by far, it’s a beautiful deep dive into her mind and her struggles. She’s open, she’s vulnerable and it’s powerful.
This album revolves around a breakup, most likely Taylor’s breakup with Jack, but of course, there’s more to it than that. This is an album that delves into a lot of things, all centring around that initial breakup. Taylor is at her most vulnerable here, and it let’s out some of her best writing and best work to date. The opener The 1 sets the scene for most of the album, building up the themes with a semi positive track about love and loss. It sets the bar pretty high with amazing writing.
“You know the greatest films of all time were never made”
The album uses a lot of metaphors and wordplay to get its points across, this isn’t uncommon for an album to do, an album I reviewed previously, Divorce Lawyers I Shaved My Head used imagery of birds and other animals to portray a metaphor of womanhood and transitioning. Taylor uses films a lot over the course of this record as a metaphor for memories and the past, she says things like “I think I’ve seen this film before, and I didn’t like the ending” which could allude to knowing how this all ends, déjà vu in a sense. Walking into a scenario you’ve been in before, knowing how it will end, but you do it anyway, and going along with the themes of this album, that seems to be love and relationships. Going into a relationship you know will end badly, but you feel desperate enough to let that happen, if you can get at least a small taste of love before it all goes down in flames.
This is an album I’ve seen a lot of people say is really good but has too many songs in it, and I disagree with that statement entirely. I adore each song on this album, and all of them feel important to the overall theme. Each one tells a story and I don’t think I’d remove any of them. All sixteen songs feel important to the plot and themes. This is most likely due to Taylor’s amazing writing throughout the entire record, each song is written excellently to the point where I cannot decide my favourite. Every song builds up a scene and puts you in it, and lets you relish in this little world Taylor has built, each world connecting to the album as a whole, building one larger world that Taylor sets the album in. I wouldn’t consider this a concept album entirely, but I wouldn’t say there isn’t a story being told here, through smaller anecdotes. Folklore feels to me like an intimate look into Taylor’s head, as she opens up and becomes quite personal throughout the record. She says a lot of things here that I don’t think she would’ve been able to if it weren’t for the style of music she had gone for. Folk is a very intimate genre of music, it’s passionate and personal. A lot of folk artists use it as a way to vent or get out their frustrations. Taylor is using the same medium for the same purpose, and it shows that she excels in writing folk music. She is an amazing writer, but is stifled by the pop box she’s put into. I would love to see more music like this in the future, more folky Taylor, more personal Taylor, because this is definitely where she shines, this is her magnum opus.
Now of course we aren’t going to end the review there, this wouldn’t be a soop review without further analysis would it not? A lot of the songs here follow the theme of loss of love, as mentioned earlier, but others take that central theme and expand upon it, with other themes like loss in general and using other methods to cope with sadness, some songs even alluding to suicide. This album shines when it’s not talking about Taylor directly, and instead is looking at another character that Taylor has come up with, and luckily for us that’s the most of the record. Songs like The Last Great American Dynasty take us to the past as it discusses Rebekah Harkness, who was a patron of the arts and the founder of the Rebekah Harkness Foundation. She was a dance enthusiast and her foundation was made to let other people enjoy that freedom too. The song discusses Rebekah while subtly comparing her to Taylor herself, especially near the end of the song. It’s a song that does what a lot of folk artists do, most notable what Bob Dylan did on his most recent album. They take the perspective of a historical figure and break them down to compare them to themselves. Sufjan does it quite often and so does Dylan, and each time it’s done exceptionally well. Taylor’s take on it is no different, this is definitely a major highlight on the album, and one of the best written songs here too. But how does this play into the overarching theme? Well, the song discusses someone living a lavish life, throwing big parties and having lots of friends, being quite popular. If we look at this with the theme of the album in mind, and the songs that have come before it, we can see that this song does fit really well with what this album is about, and one of a lot of people’s insecurities. Throwing parties, getting drunk and doing crazy shit to forget about what’s really going on, the song also discusses the hardships that Rebekah went through with the tabloids, being incredibly harsh towards her and outright attacking her at points. The song also closes on Taylor comparing these things to herself, as mentioned earlier, we see her talking about her being “the loudest woman this town has ever seen”. She draws these direct comparisons to herself because she sees them as true, and she does this a lot during the album, comparing herself to not just historical figures but also people she has come up with, people who don’t exist but do in her mind, caricatures of herself portrayed by the lyrics.
The most prominent example of this, at least to me is on the song Betty, which is a song about a possible homosexual romance between the narrator and the titular character. Funnily enough it follows a similar theme to Hot Fuss’ “hidden narrative” in which the main character of the album wants to get the man, but can’t due to his girlfriend. In this case the roles are switched, the girl wants to get the girl but can’t due to her boyfriend. The song uses a lot of switching between reality and imagination, but ends on a relatively high note. The song is set in a highschool, and is centred around three teenagers, the two aforementioned girls and Betty’s boyfriend. We see the narrator trying to get with Betty and being spiteful towards her boyfriend, it’s not an uncommon trope to see but it’s one that I love to see in media, as it’s one that feels both inclusive and also not contrived or forced. It feels natural and realistic.
“But if I just showed up at your party
Would you have me?
Would you want me?
Would you tell me to go fuck myself?
Or lead me to the garden?
In the garden would you trust me
If I told you it was just a summer thing?
I'm only seventeen, I don't know anything
But I know I miss you”
It’s a raw and honest song that feels like it comes straight from Taylor’s heart, a song that also may be reminiscent of Taylor’s past as well, which alludes back to her being open and honest on this record. Our narrator wants Betty and wants Betty to understand, but is also scared of what she’ll think when she finds out it’s her she’s after. It’s in my opinion the best written song on the album, it’s a song that reminds me of other folk songs, Sun Kil Moon and Bob Dylan, using that storytelling over making a catchy song. A song that uses its lyricism and writing to keep you engaged instead of a catchy beat and hooky chorus.
“Yeah, I showed up at your party
Will you have me?
Will you love me?
Will you kiss me on the porch
In front of all your stupid friends?
If you kiss me, will it be just like I dreamed it?”
It's a teenage love story with a happy ending, and I feel it’s the kind of song a lot of people need right now, this entire album feels like something a lot of people need right now. Every song seems to touch me in different ways due to either Taylor’s voice or her excellent writing, if not both at once. Every single song on this record feels perfectly made, polished and performed, I can’t find a dud in the tracklist nor a flaw in any song. Taylor has made a masterpiece in my eyes, an album that I cannot fault in any way. An album as hopeful as it is heartbreaking, an album that comes straight from Taylor’s heart and soul, and into everyone else’s.