- 10 Sep 20
As Taylor Swift’s surprise-release indie album continues to conquer the charts, Ed Power embarks on a deep dive into the record’s secret winks, nods and idiosyncrasies.
For a mainstream star Taylor Swift has always been full of surprises. She made her reputation as a teenage troubadour, steeped in Nashville, only to swerve effortlessly into pop. Last year’s Lover album was crammed with more Easter Eggs than a chocolate shop in April, with easily-missed references to, among other things, Drake, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the 2009 Hannah Montana movie. Speaking of movies – she became entangled in the cinematic apocalypse that was Cats only to somehow wriggle free with reputation un-dented – a feat beyond Judi Dench or Idris Elba.
And then, this summer, Swift produced her biggest rabbit from a hat yet. On July 23, as the world cooled its heels in lockdown, she revealed she had written and recorded a new LP and that she would be releasing it… the next day.
That was just the beginning of the upsets. Featuring a moody cover shot of Swift communing with the trees – a mordant image that could have doubled as an album sleeve by your favourite Dungeonsynth band – Folklore was revealed to be the downtempo indie record you had always wished she might make but never dared believe she would. As an added 4AD-ish affectation, she also lower-cased all the titles.
What’s more, Swift carried off the gear-shift effortlessly. Duetting with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on ‘exile’, it was she who brought the lo-fi grit whilst Vernon played crooning straight-man. By the end of the song it’s hard to tell who has received the credibility infusion – Swift or Vernon (maybe both). And even as her songs were elsewhere massaged by the abstracted piano lines of The National’s Aaron Dessner there was no sense that Swift was straining to achieve indie authenticity. She was as home in this world as she was duetting with Panic At The Disco’s Brendan Urie on Lover.
Befitting the into-the-deep-dark-woods theme, moreover, the record arrived wreathed in a thick undergrowth of subtexts and hidden meanings. If the best albums are those that reward, nay demand, a deep dive, then we can call off the competition and already declare Folklore LP of the year. Buckle up as we plunge off the deep end.
The Love Triangle
This one is a Swift tip-off. Unveiling Folklore she explained that a triptych of songs would “explore a love triangle from all three people’s perspectives at different times in their lives”. Fans are agreed that the tracks in question are ‘cardigan’, ‘august’ and ‘betty’ – and that the characters from whose vantage Swift sings are named James, Betty and Inez. ‘Betty’ tells the story from James’ perspective, ‘cardigan’ from Betty’s and ‘august’ from Inez’.
The True Story
It didn’t take sleuths long to work out that the LP’s stand-out ballad, ‘the last great american dynasty’ is a chronicling of the life and times of socialite Rebekah Harkness, who married into the Standard Oil fortune and became a patron of the arts only to later squander her fortune through her “capricious behaviour”. Swift was obviously a fan. In 2013 she bought Holiday House, the Rhode Island mansion where Harkness hosted many of her notorious soirees. Still, she acknowledges in her lyrics that Harkness could be a bit much: “There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen/ She had a marvellous time ruining everything”.
The Blake Lively Baby Name Conspiracy
“James” and “Inez” – two thirds of Swift’s Love Triangle – also happen to be the names of Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds’ two oldest children. The couple also have a baby daughter born in 2019, though they have sensibly kept her name out of the spotlight. Could it be that that she is called Betty? Or… possibly Cardigan?
Will The Real Will Bowery Please Come Forward?
Swift made Folklore with The National’s Aaron Dessner and her regular collaborator Jack Antonoff (also a hit whisperer to Lorde and Saint Vincent, of course). The other credited contributor is “William Bowery”, who worked on two songs. But the internet has turned up absolutely no evidence of the elusive Bowery ever existing. Swift, when recording with Calvin Harris on ‘This Is What You Came For’, styled herself Nils Sjöberg. Is Bowery another Swift persona? The other theory is that it is a male acquaintance, potentially boyfriend Joe Alwyn or brother Austin Swift.
The Lover Video Prophecy
Swift’s Instagram post on July 23 suggested she had embarked on Folklore spontaneously while in lockdown. However, keen-eyed Swifties reckon she’d been planning the record long before that. In the video to Lover’s title track last year Taylor and her beau are in a house with seven rooms – each thought to refer to one of her albums. Buuuut… what about the tiny space in the middle of the building, the one with the grey colour scheme matching Folklore’s cover sleeve. Was she tipping us off, all those months ago?
The Aran Jumper
Swift has by every account enjoyed her visits to Ireland. On a weekend away in Limerick with boyfriend Alwyn in January 20919, she for instance bought a lottery ticket for the local GAA club. Is she showing us a little love back by posing in a Clancy Brothers-style white sweater in the photoshoot accompanying Folklore? What secrets, moreover, might be contained in the jumper’s intricate weave? Our guess is that these swirling eldritch patterns reveal the date on which Mayo will next win the All Ireland. Don’t gaze too deeply, however, for fear it drives you mad.
The Irish connection became even more pronounced and poignant last week when it was revealed that the Galway cousins swept out to sea on their paddle-boards, Sara Feeney and Ellen Glynn, sang Taylor Swift songs to keep their spirits up.
The Harry Styles Wink
Swift and the curly haired 1D boy briefly stepped out several years ago. And lo, the video to the single ‘cardigan’ was released July 23 – which as you of course know is the tenth anniversary of One Direction beaming down from Simon Cowell’s imagination and forming as a real band. It has been posited that Swift’s distinctly damp video, in which she plays a piano covered in moss and sinks slowly into a dark, wet bog as all hope drains away – looks like she was caught up in the Kildare lockdown, too – is a wink towards the aquatic theme of Styles’ ‘Falling’ vid of last February.
The Bon Iver Connection
Swift’s duet with Justin Vernon on ‘Exile’ has given her a first placing on the Billboard Adult Alternative charts. Of all the surprises contained within Folklore this was seen as the most notable. And yet, in many ways the two aren’t as far apart as might be thought. For instance, both broke through with raw songs about heart-break and loneliness. And they have since pivoted towards greater experimentation. There is also a sense of turning full circle. Vernon famously recorded his break-through For Emma, Forever Ago in isolation in a cabin in Wisconsin, to which he had retreated to mend a broken heart. And now, he was in isolation again –cutting a track with Taylor Swift. It’s funny how life works out in
• Folklore is out now on Republic Records.