Taylor Swift’s New Album Reveals That Social Distancing Has Served Her Well

Folklore finds the former teen prodigy abandoning tabloid dramas to probe more adult concerns.

Taylor Swift sits on the ground in front of a tree.
Not out of the woods. Universal Music Group

Usually it seems to me like wishful overreaching when people propose bright sides to the vast disruptions of the pandemic shutdown. But I might have to make an exception for the case of Taylor Swift. This woman’s life has been scheduled years in advance ever since her midteens. This artist’s every creative pursuit has been run through strategic models, orchestrated like a multistage military campaign, and positioned to pick up on the prevailing pop winds, arguably to gradually diminishing effect. This summer, she was slated to continue touring internationally around last August’s release, Lover. Now, like every other musician, from superstar to sideperson, she’s had all that yanked out from under her. What is one utterly unaccustomed to idleness to do?

The answer came Thursday morning, when Swift announced she started writing and recording an entire new album in April and was ready to release it at midnight. At first I was skeptical one of pop’s leading control freaks could be so spontaneous—perhaps preparations secretly had been underway earlier? But Swift was backed up by her main collaborator here, Aaron Dessner, who posted that he too was startled by the, well, swiftness of the process. Yet even with that turnaround, the 16-song cycle that makes up Swift’s eighth studio album, Folklore, seems to arise from a more concentrated, contemplative mood than ever before. It’s nearly free of the striving and stress apparent in even her best work. Lover, for instance, saw some of her loveliest compositions broken up by frantic pop anthems several sizes too immature for an artist about to turn 30, as Swift did in December. Perhaps she could have used a season in lockdown long ago, if it could have come without a ghastly global pandemic.

The album’s sudden arrival is not its sole surprise. A segment of Swift aficionados, myself included, long suspected (read: hoped) she might take a left turn within the next couple of releases. But most of us had in mind a rootsy revisiting of her country-music past, or an acoustic album reflecting her love of 1970s singer-songwriters such as James Taylor (for whom she was named) and Joni Mitchell. Thursday’s announcement could have encouraged those conjectures, given Folklore as a title, not to mention the grayscale cover photo of Swift dwarfed by the vastness of the California woods. But not with the presence of Dessner, a multi-instrumentalist from the veteran indie-rock band the National, as co-writer and producer on a preponderance of the album, aside from five tracks with her long-standing studio partner Jack Antonoff (all at safe removes, from separate studios in different cities). After all, Swift was the stadium-pop prima donna who spit lyrical venom in 2012 over an ex-beau’s predilection for “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.” Now here she is in cahoots with not only some prime indie suspects but, through Dessner, a cohort of rock-and-new-music crossover instrumentalists you’d sooner expect to find gigging at New York experimental venue Le Poisson Rouge. The result is partially a logical extension of Lover’s more subdued moments, and at the same time a departure from her whole prior trajectory.

I had some advance concerns about that, as I’m on record as not exactly adoring Dessner’s main band. But the arrangements on Folklore are far more restrained, and in any case a version of the National headed up by Taylor Swift wouldn’t be the National at all. Instead, the album sets up camp in a middle ground where Swift’s distinctive conversational cadences and midrange vocal emoting counterpose with minimalist piano figures and synth textures by Dessner or Antonoff, with subtle colorations from strings and horns. Its closest precedent, as music-critic Twitter consensed within hours of its release, might be in mid-to-late-1990s Sarah McLachlan—whose 1999 live album Mirrorball has its title in common with the sixth track here—or a beatless version of U.K. trip-hop in the same period, at least on the record’s more shimmery, ectoplasmic moments such as “My Tears Ricochet” (in which Swift may be portraying a literal ghost) and “Epiphany.” When it accelerates a gear or two, it might summon the lilt of lower-tempo Cranberries or Cardigans (coincidentally a clothing item that cameos in more than one Folklore song). What it doesn’t resemble or seem the slightest bothered by is whatever defines the pop mainstream in 2020.

Even more auspiciously, Folklore breaks with both the current pop discourse and Swift’s own worst tendencies by disentangling itself considerably from the public narrative of her own life. That whole pattern in her work began innocently enough when she was a teenage country songwriter pulling her subjects from the pages of her journals, but as she rose in fame—and pop culture became more fixated on social media self-representation and intra-celebrity feuds—Swift’s songs started collapsing in on themselves, pandering to stan-culture voyeurism and too often doing her critics’ work for them. The nadir came on 2017’s Reputation, which tried to reckon with the fallout of her high-profile war with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian but couldn’t seem to help reenacting the battles and trying to score points. Lover made more of an effort to wriggle free but carried on dropping location pins in its lyrical maps, prompting fans to treat her music less as stand-alone works of art and feeling than as biographical messages to be decrypted. Don’t mistake me for an aesthetic puritan here—gossipy fun is a diversion that the lives and works of artists have always offered audiences, but in extremis it becomes a black hole that swallows all of the work’s other values. And in our era, we’re flooded with so much raw information, regardless of its worth or meaning, that it’s a challenge ever to disconnect from it and engage in any other mode.

From listening to Swift talk about the psychological vise grip of growing up hyperfamous in this past winter’s documentary Miss Americana, it’s easy to empathize with how consuming that scrutiny became for her. But it’s a relief to hear her shucking some of it on Folklore, whose title points directly to the wide zones between myth and reality. As Swift wrote in an album prologue that she’s posted, she began from individual images that then suggested characters and scenarios, until she found herself “not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t. … Myths, ghost stories, and fables. Fairytales and parables. Gossip and legend. … In isolation my imagination has run wild … escaping into fantasy, history, and memory.”

The showcase example of a song here that seeps through all those interstitial categories is “The Last Great American Dynasty”—which begins as the midcentury tale of a divorcée from St. Louis who snags an oil tycoon in Rhode Island (who quickly kicks the bucket himself) and goes on to scandalize the town, filling the swimming pool with champagne and playing cards with Salvador Dalí. Swift sings, “She had a marvelous time ruining everything.” In fact, this is the real-life history of Rebekah Harkness, an eccentric heiress and patron of the arts (she had her own ballet company) whose lifestyle and profligacy outraged polite society in the postwar decades. The twist comes toward the end of the song when Swift reveals that Harkness’ mansion is the same house the singer herself now owns in Rhode Island, where she too has come into (far more minor) conflict with the local establishment. And she’s very proud to say that she, too, has had “a marvelous time ruining everything.” Yes, the song takes up the question of her public image again, but using a much richer social tapestry than in any Swift composition before. And its “living well is the best revenge” moral is incomparably better-humored than most of her previous sour attempts at sarcasm on the subject. (The comparison is maybe even a winking critique of her own wealth and privilege, though I grant that’s a generous interpretation.) And musically, it glides along on an understated swing beat that might conjure images of swains social-dancing at Harkness’ garden parties. In a way that seems typical of Folklore’s own conceptual framework, the figure of the “crazy” widow resurfaces on the later track “Mad Woman.” (Unfortunately, that one deals in broader and more polemical brushstrokes.)

Perhaps the other most narratively striking song on Folklore is “Epiphany,” which begins with the image of an army storming a beach that the prologue says is inspired by “my grandfather, Dean, landing at Guadalcanal in 1942,” then cuts in its second verse to a scene in a modern operating room, where a woman’s vital signs are crashing as someone holds her hand through plastic shielding. “Some things,” Swift sings, “you just can’t speak about.” Over sustained electronic chords, Swift describes these scenes in warm measured syllables that call to mind Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.” This song similarly looks to unheralded everyday heroics, of medical workers as frontline soldiers, but also of the patient enduring what could be her last moments of life, dreaming of “some epiphany,” as Swift sings, “With you I serve, with you I fall.” It’s the album’s sole topical song, an evocation of the COVID-19 crisis, though it could also prompt thoughts of Swift’s mother’s own ongoing cancer struggle, and thus serves as a sequel to Lover’s heart-wrenching “Soon You’ll Get Better.” (She was backed on that song by her early inspirations, the band then known as the Dixie Chicks, and it’s a small irony that last week the trio released their comeback album Gaslighteron which Natalie Maines recognizably adopts some of Swift’s self-revealing mannerisms, while Swift herself turns back toward more open-ended storytelling. The currents of generational influence flow in mysterious ways.)

Meanwhile on “Seven,” Swift seems to transport herself back to that age, beginning with a vision of swinging over a creek, “high in the sky/ with Pennsylvania under me,” then adding with plainspoken poignancy, “Are there still beautiful things?” The song moves on to describe a childhood friend stuck in an abusive household and her naïve efforts to help plot the girl’s escape, maybe by running away together to India. Writing of child abuse with this lightness of touch is a feat. “Though I can’t recall your face,” Swift sings, she still feels their love for one another, “passed down like folk songs.”

Otherwise, Folklore revolves around Swift’s favorite subjects of love and heartbreak, but mostly without soap-opera dramatics. As she said in the Miss Americana documentary, as she’s settled into a more grown-up stable relationship—with English actor Joe Alwyn (whom fans have speculated is behind the pseudonymous William Bowery, credited as a co-writer on two tracks)—she was excited to discover that she could still write about heartbreak without being heartbroken. The opening track, “The 1,” seems to draw on the last realm among “fantasy, history, and memory,” pondering if things could have ended differently with a lost love. It also, by the way, launches her on course for a personal best swearing tally: The very first line has her declaring “I’m on some new shit,” and later she escalates to her first artillery of F-bombs.

Swift has also said that three of the songs on the album form a trilogy about a teenage love triangle, but she left us to guess which. The obvious linchpin is “Betty,” a kind of startlingly exact throwback to Swift’s teenaged country style, but one that’s sung from the viewpoint of a 17-year-old named James who betrays his girlfriend with a summer fling. Going by textual clues, it seems likely that the other two are the lushly sensual “August,” from the point of view of said fling herself, and probably lead single “Cardigan,” which would then be an older Betty recalling the affair. Whatever the solution, the rotating viewpoint contrasts pointedly with Swift’s many past songs of victimhood, bearing witness to the truth that culpability and agency can shift and slide among players and perspectives. The songs “Illicit Affairs,” “My Tears Ricochet,” and “Exile” (a duet that says “world, meet Bon Iver’s bass register”) provide a more grown-up counterpoint on betrayal and rejection.

There are more straightforward love songs on the record, too, such as “Invisible String,” the kind that plots all the stops along the way before two lovers meet, as if they’d always been somehow connected. Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but (half-quoting The Sun Also Rises), “isn’t it just so pretty to think?” Very pretty, too, is “Peace,” in which Swift owns up that freedom from turbulence might not be in the cards in a relationship with her but offers everything else she can imagine—“give you my wild, give you a child … I would die for you in secret.” Along with the closer, “Hoax,” that follows, these late moments of Folklore are those where it perhaps nudges closest to the naked intimacy of peak Joni Mitchell.

But throughout Folklore, in all its modes and manners of telling, the way Swift’s sound (especially with Dessner) has shifted from forward drive to a kind of cyclic suspension lends a sensation that Swift is seeking to share questions rather than settle arguments. Yet she’s still capable of escalating tensions when called for, often in her standout bridge sections. Mind you, she’s too often prone to diffusing her potency in fuzzy romanticism and scattershot metaphors; 16 low-key, midtempo tracks is objectively too many; and the tasteful indie vibe of the music as a whole affords too little space for her archness and mischievousness. Insularity remains her weakness, both artistically and in any larger political analysis. Hushed drones and ostinatos probably aren’t her route out of that cul-de-sac. But as a whole, Folklore finds Swift growing into her fuller self, becoming surer how to act her age, seemingly more rapidly within a few months than in the past five years together, without any major stumbles. That merits some noisy, albeit socially distanced, celebration.

For more Slate music coverage, listen to the Culture Gabfest’s annual “Summer Strut” episode below.