‘folklore’, Ranked: a Careful Dissection of Each Track on Taylor Swift’s Soft New Record

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A scene from Taylor Swift’s “cardigan” music video (Taylor Swift on YouTube)

While promoting her seventh studio album Lover in the summer of 2019, Taylor Swift told British Vogue, “I sort of equate my twenties with walking into a costume shop and trying on all these different costumes, and then walking out of the costume shop

in my regular outfit and being like, ‘I’m cool with who I am.’” Swift turned 30 last winter, and Lover was supposed to be her foray into adult music—her true self—but at times it still felt unoriginal. Her global dominance seemed to slip just a little.

Enter the pandemic. By whatever miracle, Swift decided to ditch her two-year release cycle altogether with a surprise drop—perhaps the farthest possible deviation from Lover’s 5-month promotion. Swifties were given 16 hours to prepare for her eighth studio album with only a track list, a title, and an album cover. Talk about cultural reset.

folklore truly feels like the music Taylor Swift was born to make—the actual clothes she was wearing when she walked into that costume shop. It’s built on a foundation of lyricism, which has always been her strength. Her voice is more bare than it’s been in a decade, and it’s the strongest of her career. The album isn’t burdened by an exhaustive promotion—it’s just music for the sake of music. It’s no coincidence that it’s her most universally acclaimed album to date.

So join us on a journey as we attempt the impossible task that is ranking the tracks of folklore, with a caveat: unlike previous records, every song deserves its place on this album. They’re all that good.

One of eight ‘folklore’ CD covers (Abigail Segel)

17. epiphany

It’s slow, somber, and synth-y. “epiphany” is the most apparent nod to the global shutdown on folklore, and for that, there is some universal emotional resonance. Particularly, she tells the story of her grandfather, drawing parallels from his experience in the second World War to the collective experience of enduring a deadly pandemic. The metaphor is a bit muddy, and it is not a fan favorite, but it is a necessary addition to an album created in COVID-19-induced isolation.

Best line: “Holds your hand through plastic now / Doc, I think she’s crashing out / And some things you just can’t speak about”

16. mad woman

From the first lines of “mad woman,” it’s clear that Swift is deeply feeling this song. Her voice holds pain and purpose, letting the listeners know that no, this song is not folklore. It’s a reaction to the unresolved and very public dispute between Swift and music industry bigshots Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun, who have prevented Swift from owning the masters of her first six albums. “mad woman” is a haunting tune, in both music and lyrics. She sings to both the public and Borchetta and Braun, who continually gaslight her for simply wanting to own her music. This song is leaps and bounds from Lover’s attempt at a femenist manifesto, “The Man,” and an excellent anthem for angry women at large. 

Best line: “I’m taking my time / Taking my time / Cause you took everything from me”

15. invisible string

Taylor Swift has written plenty of notable love songs, yet “invisible string” may beat all that came before. Dessner’s plucking guitar track is the backdrop to Swift’s mesmerizing vocals, making this song one of the most whimsical of the album. The song recalls how she and beau Joe Alwyn met, and the string of fate that pulled at them for years. With cheeky self-references and musings about time, “invisible string” is a marvel that only Swift could write. 

Best line: “Time / Mystical time / Cutting me open, then healing me fine”

14. the lakes

“the lakes” is the album’s singular bonus track. It wasn’t available for several weeks after the rest of the album came out so fans only had clues from music critics to speculate on what it may be about. Surprising no one, “the lakes” is a love song. It simply soars, with its swooning music and poetic lyrics that transport you to the Windermere lakes and surrounding mountains. She namedrops William Wordsworth, criticizes social media, calls Joe Alwyn her muse, and laments that she doesn’t belong. So, yeah: “the lakes” does it all.  

Best line: “Is it romantic how all my elegies / Eulogize me?”-

13. betty

Reminiscent of her country roots (there’s harmonica!), “betty” flexes Swift’s storytelling muscle. It is a part of what Swift refers to as the “Teenage Love Triangle,” a trio of songs on folklore that tell the same high school romance/tragedy from three perspectives. “betty” is a song of longing teenage confusion, and it has you at the edge of your seat for five minutes of will-they-won’t-they, which culminates in a perfectly timed key change. And, come on, rhyming “cardigan” with “car again” is genius.

Best line: “I was walking home on broken cobblestones / Just thinking of you / when she pulled up / Like a figment of my worst intentions”

12. peace

“peace,” though heartbreaking, is immensely romantic. Its production is stripped to the bone besides an incessant pulse that carries throughout the whole track. This song may be the most intimate look we get into her headspace on the record. It’s about her insecurities in her relationship—she fears that she could never give her partner peace due to anxiety, fame, or both (fans are split). Dessner said in an interview that she recorded the vulnerable vocals for “peace” in one take, making this track even more of a triumph. 

Best line: “But I’m a fire and I’ll keep your brittle heart warm / If your cascade ocean wave blues come”

11. exile

Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who has the first say in this breakup duet, startles first-time listeners with his rich baritone. He and Swift proceed to trade verses, just as quarreling lovers in a crumbling relationship might trade jabs. The song culminates with the two singing on top of each other—against each other—in a fight neither can win. It’s a tremendous feat that sounds different than anything Swift has done before. Each listen is freshly tragic and heartbreakingly stunning. 

Best line: “You’re not my homeland anymore / So what am I defending now?”

10. hoax

“hoax” is quiet and piano driven, but packed with rich imagery. She performs as she knows best—with her heart on her sleeve—as she describes the feeling of holding on to something that she knows she should let go. She writes with a newfound maturity and insight that has often been lost on her past records, and while she’s all grown up, there are still a few Taylor-isms that she can’t let go: references to the color blue and name dropping New York, to name a couple.

Best line: “Stood on the cliffside / Screaming ‘Give me a reason’”

9. this is me trying

Taylor Swift has genre-bended before, so it should be no surprise that she’s done it again, and yet in “this is me trying” she finds an entirely new sound all together. It’s softer and more atmospheric than anything on her past albums, and the verses are packed with cleverly-worded couplets. The song builds to a hauntingly powerful bridge, where her voice is treated with a reverb effect that perfectly matches the mood—and makes you wonder, is this the Taylor Swift of the future?

Best line: “They told me all of my cages were mental / So I got wasted like all my potential”

8. seven

Swift loves to use ages as titles (see: “Fifteen” and “22”), but “seven” stands out, as Swift is writing about childhood. She explores the potency of elementary school friendships (“Your braids like a pattern / Love you to the moon and to Saturn”), the naivety of growing up (“I think you house is haunted / Your dad is always mad and that must be why”), and the scope of young imagination (“Pack your dolls and a sweater / We’ll move to India forever”). It’s straightforward in concept, but a refreshing call back to simpler times when the world was one block wide.

Best line: “Before I learned civility / I used to scream / Ferociously / Any time I wanted”

7. august

As one of few collaborations with Jack Antonoff on folklore, “august” is the closest we get to Swift’s pop anthems of the past. It’s an intimate second installment of the “Teenage Love Triangle” with an instrumental that screams summer, and it captures the yearning feeling of young love that Swift knows all too well. The highlight of this track, though, is its crescendoing bridge followed by a sweeping, minute-long outro that holds its own to Swift’s lyricism.

Best line: “For me, it was enough / To live for the hope of it all / Cancel plans just in case you’d call / And say ‘Meet me behind the mall’”

6. the last great american dynasty

“the last great american dynasty” is a fun and brilliant track that cements Taylor Swift as one of the most talented storytellers of this century. What is it about? The lady that used to live in her old house. In a way that few know how, Swift wove together a tale out of the mundane that is completely extraordinary. The song focuses on Rebekah Harkness, who lived in Swift’s Rhode Island mansion decades before Swift bought it. But it’s about so much more—how the public views authentic women, and what parts of society are worth ruining. The plot-twist at the end of the standout bridge is perhaps the best line on this record packed with exceptional lyrics. 

Best line: “Holiday House sat quietly on that beach / Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits / And then it was bought by me”

5. the 1

Swift’s opening tracks have historically been hit-or-miss, but “the 1” is the perfect transition from Lover’s bubblegum pop mania to folklore’s matured, stripped-down sound. It’s quintessential Taylor Swift—it’s a breakup song full of reworked clichés after all—but it’s written with a fresh outlook: she isn’t throwing shade, but rather wistfully thinking of what could’ve been. And while “the 1” lacks specificity (we still all speculate who it’s about), it still feels as substantive as her earlier work.

Best line: “In my defense / I have none / For never leaving well enough alone”

4. my tears ricochet

The setting is a funeral, but this isn’t an ordinary death. “my tears ricochet” is about the sharp betrayal of a friend, the loss of trust, a stab in the back. It’s Swift’s et tu, brute?. It’s simply harrowing. The only song she wrote entirely by herself on the album, “my tears ricochet” gets us inside the head and heart of Swift in response to the Scott Borchetta drama (see: “mad woman”). Each lyric is a bullet that tears apart the stories Borchetta tells to discredit Swift. The song builds and crescendos and dies down, leaving the listener well-aware that this exhausting fight for her masters is never what Swift wanted. She just wants the art that made her who she is—her stolen lullabies—where they belong.  

Best line: “And I can go anywhere I want / Anywhere I want / Just not home”

3. illicit affairs

While she may be writing from fiction, on “illicit affairs” Swift paints some of the most vivid scenes on the album. She bests herself at her own game, continuing to create intensely specific narratives that are simultaneously universal. Specifically on the bridge, the emotion in her voice swells with the perfect inflection, paired with incredibly sharp, yet effortless rhymes. Swift once again proves that she doesn’t have to be heartbroken to write about heartbreak—but did we ever doubt her?

Best line: “And that’s the thing about illicit affairs / And clandestine meetings / And longing stares”

2. mirrorball

Listening to “mirrorball” feels intensely intimate, as if you’re intruding on a confession from an insecure lover. However, this song is written to all of Swift’s fans, who number in the millions. She uses the imagery of a disco ball, which takes on the colors projected upon it, to describe herself: a workhorse who wants desperately to fulfill everyone else’s expectations. The soaring music itself wouldn’t suggest this; it floats effortlessly. But between the hushes is the haunting revelation that Swift’s career and public persona haven’t always been authentic to her, and that inauthenticity takes a toll. 

Best line: “You are not like the regulars / The masquerade revelers / Drunk as they watch my shattered edges glisten”

1. cardigan

Taylor Swift, choosing the best song on an album as its lead single? No way! We are oh-so-proud of this single choice, but even more than that, we are in awe of the song itself. It’s the first edition of the Teenage Love Triangle, and sets the stage for the sensual politics that ensue in “august” and “betty.” The pain Swift’s voice conveys when portraying Betty’s mature reflections on her relationship with the unfaithful James is profound. Halfway through, the song takes a turn from methodical recollections to a nonstop river of imagery and suffering and regret. The listener is utterly swept away on that river, and into the magical world that is folklore

Best line: “A friend to all is a friend to none / Chase two girls, lose the one”