The 50 best albums of 2020, No 9: Taylor Swift – Folklore

Swift retreated to a country cabin to create a lockdown album full of imagined characters, dark musings and intimate moments, deepened by a new richness to her singing

We’ve all thought it this year: wouldn’t it be nice to escape to a cabin in the woods, to reconnect with nature, nourishing ourselves and our creative impulses? Taylor Swift’s eighth studio album evoked such a log cabin – somewhere between a Headspace bedtime story and a Bob Ross painting – that felt like a respite from global events.

Taylor Swift Folklore album cover

Released with little warning at the end of July, Folklore was recorded during lockdown between Los Angeles and New York, with remote production by Aaron Dessner of the National and Jack Antonoff. The cottage imagery was conjured up by a marketing campaign as unsubtle as the music itself was delicate. But the escapism it offers is very real. Making few references to the conditions that brought about its existence, it inhabits a world of doomed teenage romance, waspy knitted cardigans, and beguiling, glamorous women wearing impossibly high heels.

Each Swift album comes with a story and corresponding aesthetic – sleek and sophisticated on 1989, gothic and dangerous on Reputation, pastel-hued and positive on Lover. This time, the story was about the songwriter going back to basics with an album of folksy electronica, the colour palette a tasteful monochrome. To a degree the project echoed the ultimate male musician cliche – gruffly heading into the woods in search of authenticity – yet Swift has never needed to assert her songwriting bona fides, a core part of her brand since her teenage debut. Instead, a year of cancelled tour dates allowed her to make an album without having to consider the nosebleed seats, the result wistful, romantic and adorned with entrancing melodies.

Taylor Swift: Cardigan – video

Swift has always been able to capture small, intimate moments with just a few words. Folklore expands the focus from her personal relationships to imagined characters, widening the emotional and narrative range. (Another album about her “London boy”, actor Joe Alwyn, might have proved tiresome.) The Last Great American Dynasty, about 20th-century socialite Rebekah Harkness, is a perfectly self-contained short story: crisp, acerbic, affecting. Moving away from more obviously biographical songs allows for timelines to intermingle, as they do in one’s memory: alongside songs about illicit trysts in luxurious rooms, the interconnected songs Cardigan, August and Betty are set in a world of homerooms and skateboards. Sweeping, Lana Del Rey-tinged melodrama suffuses the songs, alongside introspection, self-doubt and regret, deepened by a new richness to her singing.

Occasionally, reality intrudes at the log cabin. The second half of the album drops the pace, becoming more meditative, even bleak. Epiphany looks at the final moments of a person’s life: “Someone’s daughter, someone’s mother / Holds your hand through plastic now,” Swift sings, blending her grandfather’s experiences in the second world war with the imagined experiences of a healthcare worker during the pandemic. And when her lyrics move beyond the vengefulness that has been her recent trademark to examine the dynamics of rage, it is impossible not to think of her legal battle to gain ownership of her back catalogue, a reminder that even the most established women in music are still vulnerable to the whims of powerful men. “What did you think I’d say to that? / Does a scorpion sting when fighting back?” she sings on Mad Woman. “Before I learned civility / I used to scream ferociously,” goes the deceptively pretty Seven.

Whether you’re in a cabin in the woods or locked down in your living room, thoughts have felt louder and more intrusive than usual this year. Folklore found a moment of stillness in the turmoil, turning even the darkest musings into something sparkling and beautiful.


Kathryn Bromwich

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The 50 best albums of 2020: the full list
Our countdown is complete, topped by a mercurial work of sprawling invention by a woman who has dug deep to survive. Taken as a whole, these choices contain drama, solace, poetry and fire, a fitting selection for a turbulent year

Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes

18, Dec, 2020 @8:07 AM

Article image
The 50 best albums of 2020, No 6: Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud
Katie Crutchfield’s new sobriety led to a move away from rollicking indie and toward a calmer, Americana-informed sound that reels you in

Rachel Aroesti

11, Dec, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
The 10 best contemporary music albums of 2020
We survey the best albums from the experimental edges of classical, jazz and more, from ambient sludge to blissful electronica

John Lewis

24, Dec, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best albums of 2020, No 5: Sault – Untitled (Black Is)
The first of two incredible albums released by the band this year is weapons-grade R&B and luxuriates in being unapologetically Black

Lanre Bakare

14, Dec, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best albums of 2020, No 2: Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia
The pristine club-pop on this energetic album owes a great debt to the musical past but sounds magically, wonderfully of the moment

Kate Solomon

17, Dec, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best albums of 2020, No 3: Rina Sawayama – Sawayama
Sawayama picks her way through formative musical loves to produce a risk-taking musical cocktail of R&B, goth rock and video game soundtracks

Alexis Petridis

16, Dec, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Taylor Swift announces surprise album, Folklore, with the National and Bon Iver
The singer’s eighth studio album will be released at midnight and also features production from the National’s Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff

Laura Snapes

23, Jul, 2020 @12:25 PM

Article image
The 10 best folk albums of 2020
Folk artists this year drew inspiration from China, south Asia and the wildness of the sea on the way to making stirring and vital music

Jude Rogers

22, Dec, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
The 10 best global albums of 2020
Away from the English-language mainstream was a world of mindblowing sound from Indian raga to Malian mayhem, and Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela’s final work

Ammar Kalia

23, Dec, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best albums of 2020, No 4: Perfume Genius – Set My Heart on Fire Immediately
Mike Hadreas’s most accomplished and confident album yet is a subtle journey of transformation and acceptance

Alim Kheraj

15, Dec, 2020 @6:00 AM