out of the woods: a folklore essay

In the quiet of night, with the only light being from fairy lights taped to the wall, reminders of Christmas long past, the cat sleeping quietly at the end of the bed. With my eyes closed, with headphones on to quiet the rattle of the fan, this is the way I have listened to records for the longest time – since adolescence, playing Tori Amos CDs in the shadow of the person I had not yet grown into, feeling the shape of the music in the loneliness, feeling like each record was a conversation between myself and the words of every song. Listening to the 16 surprise songs of folklore is like that; a conversation, a reminder of old friends, lost loves, new words to remind yourself why your heart aches still from time to time. I wanted to not feel like this, I wanted folklore to not make me feel like this, but as the cat came and placed herself in my arms, as she pushed her back into my chest, and I closed my eyes, this record reminded me of that ache in a way that made me remember why I had forgotten.

I passed over last year’s Lover, which isn’t to say that I will never listen to it, just that I wasn’t ready for that record at the time. In contrast, I am always ready for records like folklore, always ready to hear those new words for old aches, to go back to that place. folklore feels at times like a gathering of the moments in previous Taylor Swift records that I love the most and listen to the least now. It is soft and gentle, it is clever and knowing, and once it grows out of the need to be a record by The National during the first two songs, once it shrugs off the shadow of Matt Berninger’s unspoken voice in the way in which bandmate Aaron Dessner helps shape the music, then it really comes into its own.

In March, as the lockdown got into full swing, the admin of grindcore festival Chimpyfest advised us all ‘to stay at home and start drum machine bands,’ and whilst it’s unlikely that Taylor Swift specifically sought to heed this advice, folklore at its best feels like a record that is personal and honest, that was written in someone’s home, that was recorded in quiet spaces. It carries with it a gentle sadness that reminds of long walks alone in the lonely summer, of the empty forests, and the memories that haunt us of others. I read an article somewhere about how many people had petitioned their exes during lockdown, I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about my own bad decisions, writing about my own bad decisions; folklore is no different, in many ways, though perhaps more eloquent than some of us might manage. There is another side to it, of course, the feeling of record company contrivance with a planned September release featuring 18 different variant covers, and exile, a song written and performed with Bon Iver, is the offering that I imagine many people at Virgin/EMI are most happy with, but it’s okay, it’s fine to just accept these things, to fast-forward, to move the needle, because from my tears ricochet, the album really comes into its own. A lot of the songs in this middle act of the record were co-written with Jack Antonoff, and the contrast between this record and Lorde’s 2017 album, Melodrama, is really striking, and it feels in a way that both records are bookending something really important about the way our hearts bruise that I don’t have the proper words for. The records are nothing alike, but at the same time, they complement each other in a way that feels honest and real. On songs like mirrorball, the arrangement begins like Best Coast, and grows into something that reminds me of Waxahatchee or Japanese Breakfast; on seven, I felt my heart break, the gentle Plathian sense of failure resonating on so personal a level, my heart beating in time with that of the cat held in my arms.

Shitty newspapers like the Guardian will tell you that folklore is Taylor Swift’s “indie record” without explaining to you that shitty newspapers like themselves, and shitty record companies like Virgin/EMI, invented the idea of “indie” as a marketing strategy, and it is devoid of meaning. folklore is a passionate and honest Taylor Swift record, don’t listen to the cadence of words from pretentious, middle class white men paid to arrest what music can be, what it can make you feel. 

In the dark, beneath the glow of fairy light, on my left arm, the white scars of remembered bad decisions, the circles of old cigarettes burns felt warm, familiar, fresh again, as if I had never left that place I was once in; it is upsetting to try and suggest something is universal, but there is a commonality in all our bad memories that folklore evokes in a way that made me really think about the time that has been slipping away over these last few months – again, I thought of all those people who had written emails and letters and postcards to their exes, and again, I thought of all the people I have pushed down just to try and keep myself above water, and with my headphones in, I knew that forever this record would remind me of this time, in as much as playing it the first time instantly reminded me of all those people I had treated badly, all those people who had treated me badly.

People will tell you it’s not kvlt to like something popular, but sometimes records like this are popular because they are true, because they are good – because they are honest.


Illustration by Jericho Vilar

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