The coronavirus pandemic has made a mess of the present and clouded any visions of the future, but at least—as artworks of our era keep insisting—the past is there to guide us. Taylor Swift, for example, has been thinking about her grandfather fighting in World War II. On “Epiphany,” from the superstar’s surprise-release album, Folklore, Swift sings of him on a 1942 battlefield, attending to a comrade bleeding out. Her voice is a translucent beam; her syllables fall slowly like ash. But by verse two, she’s singing from somewhere else: a 2020 medical ward of plastic sheaths and labored breathing. Swift’s singing as someone else, too—a nurse attending to a faltering patient. “Doc,” she says, “I think she’s crashing out.”
A song like this doesn’t seem like it should work. Here’s a woman of great privilege equating two traumas that aren’t her own while using the ever-dicey metaphor of war to describe a viral pandemic. But Swift writes with a care and empathy that feel almost priestly. The soldier and the medical worker, overburdened by horror, both get “only 20 minutes to sleep” and yet dream “of some epiphany—just one single glimpse of relief.” Swift doesn’t describe the epiphany. We have to dream it for ourselves.
Asking others to do the dreaming is new for the 30-year-old Swift, one of the 21st century’s canniest exhibitionists. By unpacking her teenage diary with a country twang and then litigating celebrity romances over synth-pop, her first seven albums fed a public hungry for stars to let the world into their living room. But one of the delights of Folklore, an audacious and almost-too-rich feast of an album, is that Swift moves away from a solid sense of the first person. There are fictional stories, there are historical stories, there are personal stories—and there are all three in the space of single songs. “In isolation,” she explained on Instagram, “my imagination has run wild.” The outward-looking approach has made her a better writer, and it might just create better listeners.
With its woodsy black-and-white art, not to mention its title, Folklore advertises itself as an expected pop-star maneuver: the “back to basics” or “stripped down” revelation. But the album’s more complex than that, and does not conjure the image of Swift slumped over a guitar for an acoustic set. With the producers Aaron Dessner (of the indie band The National) and Jack Antonoff (the rock singer turned pop-star whisperer), she swims through intricate classical and folk instrumentation largely organized by the gridded logic of electronic music. Melancholy singers of ’90s rock radio such as Natalie Merchant and Sarah McLachlan seem to guide Swift’s choices, as do contemporaries such as Lana Del Rey and Lorde. The overall effect is eerie, gutting, and nostalgic. If Folklore is not apt for summer fun, it is apt for a year in which rambunctious cheer and mass sing-alongs have few venues in which to thrive.
The transition from last year’s ultra-fluorescent Lover takes some getting used to, though. Dessner’s ominous chords, delicate rhythms, and smudgy instrumental loops have in the past complemented singers such as The National’s Matt Berninger, whose surreal poetry documents inarticulable feelings. But Swift is an artist defined by clarity; when she attempts ambiguity, it’s by planting solvable riddles. Even so, Dessner’s sound often suits her like a finely knitted cape, as with the grooving plucked strings of “Invisible String.” But sometimes the songs’ solemnity seems forced, especially during the shaky first third of the album. The conversational opener, “The 1,” has a suspicious whiff of Ed Sheeran. The lead single, “Cardigan,” is swamped by sepia. The Bon Iver duet, “Exile,” plods in the manner of bad musical theater.
Yet across arrangements both luminous and leaden, Swift’s writing is excellent—the stuff of which obsessive listening is built. Her melodies, while singsong and sturdy as always, convey depth with jagged cadences and curly, questioning inflections. She thrills in small, surprising word choices, like when she writes of early love that “expires” rather than dies, or when she accuses a jealous lover of eyeing a rival “just like he’s your understudy.” “The Last Great American Dynasty,” a portrait of the mid-century widow who lived in the Rhode Island mansion that Swift now owns, is economical and vivid, welding brief anecdotes to big feminist themes. Late in the album, amid the rambling harmonicas and guitar strumming of “Betty,” she commits an act of storytelling so suspenseful, it made me stand up and put my hands on my head while waiting for it to end.
“Betty,” many fans suspect, culminates what Swift has called Folklore’s “Teenage Love Triangle” trilogy, which features three tracks (the others being “Cardigan” and “August”), each sung from a different perspective. The final narrator is a 17-year-old named James, but with Swift singing the lyrics, “Betty” first hits the ear as a tale of same-sex desire. Language about closet hideaways and chosen families elsewhere on the album also hints at a queer subtext. Swift could be accused of baiting fans who’ve fervently speculated about her sexuality, but unlike with the Pride posturing of Lover, her identity play—maybe call it fluidity—feels openhearted and thematically justified. Again and again on Folklore, Swift seems inspired by the ways stories can signify on multiple levels to different people. On the lovely, quavering childhood recollection “Seven,” she even frames the song with an address to the listener: “Please picture me in the weeds / Before I learned civility.” We’re watching her watch herself.
The roving point of view does not mean that Swift has given up her old themes and intrigues. But it does give her the freedom—even cover—to push them further. There’s a strange satisfaction in hearing Swift vest her characters with her own habits of righteous defiance and grudge keeping, and it’s a relief when they find a moment of grace. A number of lyrics might be salvos in her feud with the music execs Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun, but if that’s the case, she has successfully adapted a real-world contract dispute into flinty, moving noir. To close the album, “Hoax” makes a chilling turn from seeming like a tribute to Swift’s boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, to describing a breakup. Swift and Alwyn are, as far as the public knows, still together. Quite possibly, quite deliciously, she’s creating tension—and maybe teaching a lesson—by scrambling the listener’s assumptions.
If these psychological maneuverings sound tricky, the generally gorgeous music provides an anchor. That’s especially the case during the album’s gemlike mid-section, which kicks off with a restorative gust of reverb called “Mirrorball.” Snowy with tambourine yet warm with sparkling guitar tones, the song swathes Swift as she sighs her most perceptive confession: “All I do is try, try, try.” The song compares the singer to a disco ball, spinning above a dance floor and reflecting the revelers back on themselves. That’s an enchanting image of the role a celebrity entertainer can play—a role beyond that of someone broadcast on a screen or spied on through tinted windows, and a role fit for a time when life feels as though it’s moving in circles.