July 24, 2020
Categorized as an indie folk, alternative rock, electro-folk, and chamber pop record, “folklore” marks a musical departure from the upbeat pop sound of Taylor’s preceding studio albums to stripped-down tunes driven by piano and guitar, with production from Aaron Dessner, Jack Antonoff and Taylor herself.
“I used to put all these parameters on myself, like, ‘How will this song sound in a stadium? How will this song sound on radio?’ If you take away all the parameters, what do you make? And I guess the answer is…’folklore’.” — Taylor Swift
Taylor announced “folklore” as a surprise release on her social media accounts sixteen hours before its launch. The album was released eleven months after Taylor’s seventh studio album “Lover” (2019), the fastest turnaround for a Taylor studio album, beating the one year and nine months gap between “reputation” and “Lover”. In October 2020, she told Paul McCartney in an interview for Rolling Stone:
“I had originally thought, ‘Maybe I’ll make an album in the next year, and put it out in January or something,’ but it ended up being done and we put it out in July. And I just thought there are no rules anymore.” –Taylor Swift
Taylor announced that the music video for the album’s lead single “cardigan” would debut at the same time as the album’s release. During the YouTube premiere countdown to the music video for “cardigan”, Taylor revealed that the album lyrics contained many of her signature Easter eggs:
“One thing I did purposely on this album was put the Easter eggs in the lyrics, more than just the videos. I created character arcs and recurring themes that map out who is singing about who… For example, there’s a collection of three songs I refer to as the Teenage Love Triangle. These three songs explore a love triangle from all three people’s perspectives at different times in their lives”. — Taylor Swift
She referred to the album as “wistful and full of escapism. Sad, beautiful, tragic. Like a photo album full of imagery, and all the stories behind that imagery”, and described “cardigan” as a song that explores “lost romance and why young love is often fixed so permanently in our memories,”. She also named the self-written track “my tears ricochet” as the first song she wrote for the album.
“cardigan” was released as the lead single from the album on July 27, 2020. “exile“, featuring American indie folk band Bon Iver, and “betty” followed as the second and third singles, respectively. “folklore” received widespread critical acclaim, with emphasis on its sonic coherence, relaxed atmosphere, and lyrics based on fictional narratives. It broke numerous streaming records upon release, including the Guinness World Record for the biggest opening day for an album by a female artist on Spotify. The album sold two million copies in its first week globally, 1.3 million of which were sold on its first day.
Earning more than 846,000 units in its first-week in the US, “folklore” debuted atop the Billboard 200 chart, giving Taylor her seventh consecutive number-one album on the chart. The album also reached number-one in Australia, Canada, Belgium, Ireland, New Zealand, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and several other territories. All sixteen tracks of the album debuted simultaneously on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, with three in the top-ten; “cardigan” debuted at number-one, giving Taylor her sixth chart-topping single in the US and making her the first act in history to debut atop the Billboard Hot 100 and Billboard 200 charts in the same week, while “the 1” and “exile” reached fourth and sixth spots, respectively.
A documentary detailing the making of “folklore” along with an acoustic performance of its songs, “folklore: the long pond studio sessions“, was released to Disney+ on November 25, 2020, accompanied by its live album.
“folklore” has been described as an indie folk, alternative rock, electro-folk, and chamber pop album with elements of indie rock, electronica, dream pop and country. Devoid of any pop songs, it marked Taylor’s departure from the contemporary pop sound of her previous works. The album consists of cinematic, downtempo ballads with an “earthy”, lo-fi production and elegant melodies that together lend a modern spin on traditional songcraft, largely built around “nearly neo-classical” instrumentals, such as: soft, sparse and sonorous pianos, moody, picked and burbling guitars, fractured and glitchy electronica, throbbing percussions, mellow programmed drums and Mellotron, sweeping orchestrations with “ethereal” strings and “meditative” horns.
“There’s so much stress everywhere you turn that I kind of wanted to make an album that felt sort of like a hug, or like your favorite sweater that makes you feel like you want to put it on. Like a good cardigan, a good, worn-in cardigan. Or something that makes you reminisce on your childhood.” — Taylor Swift
The album does not completely avoid “digital beats, plush synths” characteristic of Taylor’s pop music, but instead “dials them down until they are an almost invisible texture”. Rolling Stone noted that the vibe of “folklore” resembles that of “Safe & Sound“, Taylor’s single for the “Hunger Games” film soundtrack (2012).
LYRICS AND THEMES
Upon the release of the album, Taylor noted how isolation played a big role in the making of “folklore” and how it helped her during the lockdown period.
“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. Picking up a pen was my way of escaping into fantasy, history, and memory. I’ve told these stories to the best of my ability with all the love, wonder, and whimsy they deserve.” — Taylor Swift
Compared to much of Taylor’s older discography, the songwriting on “folklore” reflected her “deepening” self-awareness, formed “vivid” storytelling, and showed a “higher degree of fictionalization” that was less “self-referential”. The songs are also notably less upbeat than on “Lover”. In October 2020, Taylor told Paul McCartney in an interview for Rolling Stone that she wanted to make sadness the central theme of the album in a way that made it less scary and more comforting because some may have needed it amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think sadness can be cozy. It can obviously be traumatic and stressful too, but I kinda was trying to lean into sadness that feels like somehow enveloping in not such a scary way— like nostalgia and whimsy incorporated into a feeling like you’re not all right. Because I don’t think anybody was really feeling like they were in their prime this year. Isolation can mean escaping into your imagination in a way that’s kind of nice.” — Taylor Swift
The songs explore points of view that diverge from Taylor’s life, including third-person narratives. The imaginary narratives described in “folklore” include a scandalous old widow hated by her whole town, a scared seven-year-old girl with a traumatized best friend, a ghost watching her enemies at her funeral, recovering addicts, and a fumbling teenage boy. Three of the tracks — “cardigan”, “august” and “betty” — depict a love triangle between three fictitious characters: Betty, James and an unnamed woman, with each of the three songs written from the perspective of each of those characters in different times in their lives. Commenting on the maturity of the album’s lyrical execution, NPR’s Ann Powers compared the album to releases by other artists when they were thirty years old, such as: The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St.” (1972), Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” (1974), Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” (1976), Elliott Smith’s “Either/Or” (1997), and PJ Harvey’s “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea” (2000). Many songs on “folklore” also incorporate cinematic imagery in their lyrics. Taylor told Paul McCartney:
“I was reading, you know, books like Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, which I highly recommend, and books that dealt with times past, a world that doesn’t exist anymore. I was also using words I always wanted to use – kind of bigger, flowerier, prettier words, like ‘epiphany,’ in songs. I always thought, “Well, that’ll never track on pop radio,” but when I was making this record, I thought, “What tracks? Nothing makes sense anymore. If there’s chaos everywhere, why don’t I just use the damn word I want to use in the song? […] I have favorite words, like ‘elegies’ and ‘epiphany’ and ‘divorcée,’ and just words that I think sound beautiful, and I have lists and lists of them.” — Taylor Swift
The photos for the album, shot by photographer Beth Garrabrant, are characterized by a grayscale, black and white filter. Regarding the references going into the project, Beth Garrabrant said:
“From the very beginning Taylor had a clear idea of what she wanted for the album’s visuals. We looked at Surrealist work, imagery that toyed with human scale in nature. We also looked at early autochromes, ambrotypes, and photo storybooks from the 1940s. I was thrilled when Taylor said that she envisioned the series in black-and-white and that she was keen on having everything shot on film.” — Beth Garrabrant
Taylor styled herself for the photoshoot, including her own hair and makeup. The digital cover artwork depicts her in a misty forest with a morning fog in the distance, standing alone, wearing a long, double-breasted plaid coat over a white prairie dress, gazing “in awe” at the height of the trees meadow. On the backside cover, she stands turned away from the camera, wearing a slouchy flannel-lined denim jacket slumped around her arms, and a white lace frock, with two loose braided buns low towards her nape.
“folklore” turned out be to be a massive success for Taylor and broke many records in the first 10 weeks of its release. It topped the Billboard Hot 200 list for 8 weeks. In November 2020, it achieved the monumental feat of selling 1 million copies in the US, becoming the first million-seller of 2020.
|Released||July 24, 2020|
|Studio||Long Pond (Hudson Valley, NY)
Kitty Committee (Los Angeles)
Rough Customer (New York City)
Electric Lady (New York City)
Conway (Los Angeles)