The cover of Taylor Swift’s new album folklore is a black and white photo of the singer-songwriter in a long coat standing in a forest of tall, slender trees. Swift is small, barely recognisable, her head tilted slightly, looking up at the nearest tree.
Taylor Swift isn’t small though. She’s a global pop star, one of the biggest. Yet the conceit of the cover is that even Taylor Swift is tiny compared to the majesty of nature.
While there’s no back-to-nature roots music on the album, the songs are more humble, less ego-driven, not so much caught up in the swirl of celebrity culture. The pop glam, the brash put-downs, the revelling in self-mythology that were part of Swift’s recent catalogue is largely missing here. Most of the songs are about characters other than Swift herself. Whatever past experiences she’s drawing on from her own life, these are seamlessly woven into narratives and character sketches that we ordinary folk can identify with.
Many of the songs have the narrator recalling the past. As in the lost love of a woman’s “roaring twenties” in the opening track ‘The 1’; and the teenage love dramas in ‘Cardigan’, ‘Betty’ and ‘August.’ There are memories of being seven years old in the gorgeous ‘Seven’, with its aching poetry of nostalgia and never to be regained innocence and wonder. A bittersweet melody accompanies these opening lines: “Please picture me in the trees/ I hit my peak at seven/ Feet in the swing over the creek.” We can picture Swift as a child on a swing, but we also picture ourselves. We all have such moments from our childhood that we remember and cherish.
Swift develops the scene with the lines: “I was high in the sky/ With Pennsylvania under me.” Then switching registers, a sudden question: “Are there still beautiful things?” And it’s in this one line that we have a connection to the bigger picture of our lives amid a global pandemic and whatever is to come. Are there still beautiful things? Yes there are, and ‘Seven’ is one of them.
Most of us have a history of failed relationships with people. We look back with some regret and maybe a little maturity. Hoping we won’t repeat past mistakes. This is the key to the album’s title. The folklore here is not the rural tradition of folk music, but our own past lives and what we can learn from looking back on them.
There’s often a double-sided nature to our reminiscing though. We might hope we’ve grown and gained insight into ourselves, but there’s still the lingering sense that our youthful dramas were the best of times. Falling in and out of love with people and places (and even ideas or political creeds) had an emotional intensity that we can look back on with envy. There can be regret or sadness in recalling our past, but part of us wishes we were still there. Taylor Swift understands that contradiction, like when she sings in ‘August’: “Back when we were still changing for the better/ Back when I was living for the hope of it all.”
In ‘This is me trying’ she likens herself to a once flash new car or bike: “I’ve been having a hard time adjusting/ I had the shiniest wheels/ Now they’re rusting.” There is no going back. That’s accepted. Contentment, if not drama and adventure, can be found in the present. As in these poet-worthy lines: “Time, mystical time, cutting me open, then healing me fine.”
Musically, the album doesn’t stray far from slow piano ballads, with textured and subtle, mood-amplifying guitar. There are accompanying electronic effects, and the album sounds very produced, but it’s intimate in a way that past Taylor Swift albums are not. For all its layered production, the album still feels like musicians making music in a cabin somewhere in an untouched forest in a mythical place called America. To understand, perhaps, what this album feels like to listen to, go back to that cover photo. If the photo speaks to you at this time of coronavirus, then so might these 17 songs.