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cardigans, ghosts, ashes, and bloodstains: let's talk about folklore

by Jordan Parkinson about a year ago in song reviews

review and analysis

Every time Taylor Swift comes out with a new album I write a post about it. I usually do this on my personal blog that really functions as more of a journal for me, so that is where I have reviews/analyses of each album going back to 1989, which was around the time I first started blogging. This post was actually one that I wrote back in September, so quite soon after Folklore came out, and long before Evermore blew the rest of our brains apart. (As of right now, I haven't written one about Evermore. But when I do I will probably share it here on Vocal as well. I mean, if you guys want to read it.) It was so much fun writing this post and sharing everything this album meant and still means to me, so I wanted to share it here as well.

Every album elicits different feelings and lessons, so the posts I write always vary as to what they focus on or what I try to bring home about the album. On my personal blog I did not, in fact, write a post about her album Lover, though I never went into reasons why. I did write a post about one song in particular, The Archer, but never an entire post about the whole album. And if you don't understand why you probably never will so I'm just going to leave that in 2019 where it belongs.

So today we're going to talk about Taylor's surprise album Folklore.

I realize that Evermore was even more of a surprise album than Folklore, but when Folklore was released all of us went ballistic. Like. Taylor doesn't do that kind of thing so, we were all freaking out. Folklore was Taylor's original surprise album, and it was insane.

I gotta be honest, folks. When she dropped the announcement that Folklore was being released in like five minutes, I was not into the idea of a new album at all. I was on an Instagram/social media break for over two months, during which time she announced the new album. So I found out from my little sister that it was happening and my first reaction was, "Why?" I was really enjoying hiding from the world, and having Taylor drop a new album meant I couldn't hide as much anymore. I'm not going to explain that I just hope you get it.


Because I have been here since the days of Tim McGraw, I will, in fact, be here until the very last song is released and beyond. That is simply the way it is. So of course I listened to the album as soon as it came out that night. I was so intrigued by the idea that most of this album just came from her imagination. Her last three albums have been very heavily, "Hey, this is what is happening in my life right now." It hasn't been since Red that we've gotten some songs we needed to interpret differently or maybe realize that they have nothing to do with her life and everything to do with the concepts of life in general.

So. Folklore. It's a really long album. And I usually just list some lessons I learned from the album or maybe concepts I like and then group the songs into each. But I think this album calls for a song-by-song journey. So fasten your seat belts. This is going to be a long post. Stick around if you dare.

1. the 1

Okay, so. This song. I really love this song. The first time I heard it I was wildly afraid that Taylor and Joe had broken up. But not to fear, all is well in their relationship. The thing that is weird to me about this song, and this comes up for me later, is that this is a song that maybe I should relate to. Anybody who glances at my life would say that this is a song I should relate to heavily. But I just don’t. I don’t feel it personally or like it hits me specifically in any way. And you know what? That was really, really nice for a change.

This is a good place to talk about something I realized several months ago, long before this album came out. It’s really great when songs or books or movies or quotes apply to you. It’s nice to feel understood and feel like you aren’t alone in your circumstances. But. Even if a song or a book or a movie or a quote applies to your life, that does not make it your life. Your story is different no matter what. Because all of our stories are different. So while this song probably seems like it relates to my life, I do not feel that way in the slightest and I never will. But even if I did, I would still understand that just because I related heavily to it does not make it the truth of what I live through every day. I just needed to establish that before I move on.

It’s just a good song. I enjoy the lyrics, especially their simplicity. I think that’s a trend in this album. All of the lyrics are fairly simple but I think that this album is by far her most powerful as far as the depth and range of emotion. I think this was a great song to open the album with.

2. cardigan

Okay, so, I am pretty sure that I watched the music video for this song and therefore heard this song before I heard the rest of the album. To be honest, I was so enthralled with the visuals of the video that I didn’t have much time to really listen to the song. So. That’s a mistake to learn from. But anyway, I do remember one thing. I remember one lyric that came piercing through everything and hit me right in the heart. It is the line, “I knew you, tried to change the ending, Peter losing Wendy.” Gosh. To be fair, I could probably write separate posts about every song on this album but none of us have time for that. This song is absolutely bursting with lines that sit right in the middle of my heart. Another one is “marked me like a bloodstain”. I guarantee you we’ve all felt that way before.

I also find it really interesting how, speaking as the character who we later learn is named Betty, she talks about what she knows and doesn’t know. This blows me away because anybody will tell you I am known for asking, “Well, what do you know?” when I am told that somebody doesn’t know something. At the end of the song, she talks about how she “knew everything” when she was young. And I think what she means by that is not the cliche fact that we all think we know everything when we are young. I think she’s referring to the fact that she truly did know all of the things she says she knows throughout the song, and those were the most important things to know. They were everything. I absolutely love this song for all of the depth it brings about so simply, all of the emotions it runs through, and the feelings it captures.

3. the last great american dynasty

Okay, real talk. When I first heard this song I wasn’t super impressed. I thought it was really fun and great, but it wasn’t like a crazy amazing experience or anything. It was just a nice song. But as I’ve listened to it more I’ve come to really enjoy it. It establishes some powerful themes in the album, like the power of women and the misconceptions about them. One of my best friends told me that this song reminds her of my novel, probably because both of them deal with people in high society in Rhode Island, but I loved that. I think it’s a lovely song with a lot of heart and impact.

4. exile

This song is another one that I should probably relate to very, very much. But guess what? I don’t. I can’t begin to explain to you how absolutely refreshing it is for me to not relate to a song like this. I can finally listen to a sad song again and just enjoy the raw beauty and emotion. That being established, there was one line that I felt a tiny bit personally connected to: “And it took you five whole minutes to pack us up and leave me with it.” This line reminded me, oddly enough, of myself. I do not give up on people easily or push them out of my life flippantly. Part of this is because I’m crazy selective about who I let into the inner sanctum anyway, but it’s also because when I’ve brought you close to my heart that’s just where you belong now. I don’t walk away from people, pretty much ever. But when I do, I’ve been known to do it in fairly hardcore ways. I heard it described as “metal” most recently and honestly, that’s my favorite description ever. But if you asked anybody in my life who I have truly closed the door on, they would probably tell you that once I decided to do it, it took about five minutes to gather up everything and I left them with all the boxes. And I never looked back. Anyway, that one sliver of the song was what I related to the very most, but in a way I didn’t expect.

Bon Iver was a fabulous choice for this collaboration. His voice is spectacular and adds an element to the song that is absolutely stunning. This song can really only be described as deep. But at the same time that doesn’t feel right. It’s not like “deep”. It’s deep. You know? The sound, the feeling. I am having a hard time explaining it. Just listen to it and you’ll understand. Pretty soon after the album came out I had this song on repeat for probably two days. Not because I was having an overly hard time or anything, just because it is so, so, so incredibly beautiful.

5. my tears ricochet

So. This song. Where to begin. Um. Gosh. How do I say this as accurately as possible?

I have never, ever, ever related to a song so much in my entire life.

There. I said it. Okay?

I have related to many, many songs. I have often thought that somehow an artist hacked into my life and wrote a song about it. That feeling is not new to me. But it is wildly different with this song. This song was not like Taylor hacked into my life, watched it for a minute, and wrote a song. It was like Taylor sneaked into my bedroom, stole my journal, and set one of the entries to music. I don’t just relate to this song. I literally could have written it.

The first time I heard this song, I cried. Big, ugly, hot tears in the middle of the night in the middle of my mom’s living room. I sat in an armchair, holding my face in my hands, and wept like a baby. I don’t really know how to say it better than that. It was a really beautiful experience in an interesting way. Every single word felt like it was written in my tears. This is the song on the album that settled into my bones.

But it was also really interesting because I also know that my life is not a song. I don’t have to put everything in that kind of box. This is a really important lesson that I have learned this year. And I find it really cool that I learned it before this album came out, long before I ever heard this song. That’s probably why, actually. I bet God did that on purpose. Just because you relate to something or know exactly what somebody means by something does not mean that your life follows the same pattern or has the same outcome. So even though I relate to this song in a way I can barely explain, I can still listen to it all the time without feeling like I’m bleeding out. Because my life is not a song.

Moving on from my own experience, this song is incredible. It’s so ethereal and lovely. And I think it speaks a lot to several different emotions people can feel in many situations.

6. mirrorball

Guys. I love this song. I freaking love this song. I LOVE THIS SONG. Did I mention I love this song??? To be honest I don’t have really any clue as to why. I just love it. I feel like it’s a very light and bright song, even though there is a ton of depth in it. I think that it is a song that can be easily overlooked and will probably join the ranks of the songs Taylor has that people sleep on. But golly goodness I love this song. I could hear the chorus over and over again for probably ever and not care. I love it. I think it’s simple and somehow heartwarming and also really lovely.

7. seven

Guys. I don’t like this song. I just don’t. I don’t have really any reason for it, I’m not exactly sure why, but it’s the one song on the album I always skip. I can’t even listen to it. I just don’t like it. It feels weird to me. That’s all.

8. august

This song is really interesting. It’s part of the love triangle story of the album. This is the story told from the perspective of the other girl you hear about in Cardigan. I like the fact that Taylor is telling us stories from different perspectives in this album. It’s something I enjoy a lot. I don’t have much to say about this song. I think it’s very light and beautiful. I think it speaks to how simple life can be sometimes. I think it speaks to how certain people or things come and go and perhaps that isn’t always a bad thing. I think it’s very beautiful.

9. this is me trying

I really like this song. And I will tell you. THE LYRICS ARE FIRE. I don’t know any other way to put it, really. The in this song are NOT messing around. This song reminded me of somebody really special to me, but mostly I just listen to it and geek out over how spectacularly all the words fit together. I’m a dork like that, I suppose. There is only one line in it that, again, reminds me of myself. It says, “And my words shoot to kill when I’m mad, I have a lot of regrets about that.” Yep. I’ve blogged about that before. I see it as my biggest flaw and it’s something I try really hard to work on. But my brief experience aside, I just really love the way this song fits together. Good grief, if I printed it out in poem form those margins would be having a straight-up party. Not kidding.

10. illicit affairs

My younger sister does not like this song. She says the lyrics are fine, but maybe it’s the music she doesn’t like? She’s not entirely sure. I think it’s probably because it’s about cheating. The song itself isn’t bad. I enjoy listening to it. I don’t skip it every time like my sister does. But that being said, it’s pretty problematic. But I think that’s kind of the point. Taylor talks about that in the song. Obviously cheating on your significant other is not okay. Not okay. The fact that we even have to talk about this is ridiculous but nevertheless, it is a thing that happens to a lot of people and it’s terrible. But, the song does mention how that kind of thing usually ends quite terribly. Eventually, it’s all about lies. Eventually, it just dies. Eventually, you realize that you absolutely ruined yourself and everything good for brief, exhilarating moments. It’s a pretty simple song lyrically and musically, but it packs a punch.

11. invisible string

So this is one of the few songs on the album that’s actually about Taylor and her life currently. And I couldn’t be more in love with it. It’s so beautiful. I love how she describes that love that she and Joe share. I love this song because I think it speaks so much truth. When you are with that one person who feels like the biggest adventure and home all at the same time, there is a gorgeous inevitability to it all. Like you were connected with a single thread of gold the entire time. It’s a song about that connection you only have with that one person. The indescribable yet very real and crazy powerful connection that just leads you right there. “One single thread of gold tied me to you.” Again, musically it’s very simple, but the lyrics are perfect. I find it very lovely and heartwarming.

12. mad woman

This song is so awesome. I feel like a teenage boy using that phrasing but oh my wordy glory. This song is so, so, so cool. It speaks about a lot of different things. It is a not-so-subtle reference to the horrible things that have happened to Taylor in the last years. And it’s a very bold way of doing it. There is a terrible thing in our society where if a woman decides to speak out about her hardships or find justice for her abuses, she’s seen as crazy. I think by writing the song the way she did, Taylor brought just the right amount of attention and impact to the issues.

13. epiphany

You guys. This song. Oh, this song. What do I say about this song? For probably the first two or three weeks the album was out, every single time I listened to this song I had crazy hardcore goosebumps all over my body for the entire song. I still get them every now and then when I listen to it. For those of you who don’t know, this song is about Taylor’s grandfather who served in World War II. About some brief moments in the things he experienced. It is powerful for many, many reasons. Obviously, war brings untold horrors. Obviously, there are going to be things that “you just can’t speak about”. As a historian, I find this song very lovely and very respectful towards the things that have happened to the world in the past. War is not beautiful. But this song is. Because at the end of the day I think it speaks most to brotherhood and connection, which we need the very most on any kind of battlefield.

14. betty

Ah, this song. The final one in the love triangle trilogy. The final chapter. The final perspective. We hear the entire story from the perspective of James. A 17-year-old boy who knows absolutely nothing except for one thing: I miss you, Betty.

I applaud him for knowing at least one thing and acting on it. Truly I do. Most people in general don’t really do that so. Good job, James. That aside. How dare you. What he did was not cool. At all. He does know that and acknowledge it, though. So that’s neat of him. Now that I’m writing it out, I realize I have some mixed emotions about this song. I actually really like it and I very much enjoy listening to it. Perhaps the thing that irritates me about it is that it is told from the perspective of a 17-year-old boy, so therefore. Therefore. It’s told from the perspective of a 17-year-old boy. Okay? That’s self-explanatory.

Anyway, I think it’s a great song. I really enjoy the music, and the lyrics are fun, too. There is a personal element to it that I really enjoy. A casualness, maybe? I like that it truly is told from somebody’s perspective as if they are talking to one person and one person alone. It gives us a lot of insight into the story and everything that happened you can feel very palpably what James feels. I like that about it.

15. peace

Again, finally a song about Taylor and her life. Another love song for Joe. But if I’m being honest, it was not my favorite when I first heard it. Again, loved the lyrics, wasn’t super into the music. But the more I have listened to it the more I have realized how beautifully put together the song is. The music is simple because the song is simple. The message is simple. It’s about peace. The journey to peace. It’s about everything she promises to give him and everything she promises to be for him while being very open about the fact that no matter what she does there will be times and things she can’t control. She can’t promise him peace.

I think what I love most about this is that it is true for everybody. It’s easy to listen to this and think that of course, she can’t promise him peace, she’s Taylor Swift and her life is nuts. But the truth is that none of us know what the future holds. When you commit to that person you are tied to with that gold thread, you can’t promise them peace. You can promise to “swing with you for the fences, sit with you in the trenches, give you my wild, give you a child” but you can’t promise peace. Life is full of unknowns. You can promise to work through hard days, to choose them every day, to laugh and cry and watch bad movies together. But you can’t promise peace. And that’s okay. It really is. Because, much like true love, I don’t think peace is something we find. I think it is something we create and choose. So maybe she or you can’t promise that, but it’s something they or you find together.

Which is really stunning.

16. hoax

The last song on the album. And, by far, one of the saddest songs that Taylor has ever written. Ever. Period. No questions asked. I absolutely love this song. I love it so much. Again, I can’t really relate. But I think many, many people can and that’s so tragic. To say that this song is about heartbreak feels far too simple. I think it’s about the kind of heartbreak where you were absolutely ruined by the person who was supposed to love you. The kind of heartbreak where you aren’t even you anymore because the person who was supposed to keep you safe instead threw you off a cliff. It’s actually a very touchy topic, I think. Something that needs to be talked about delicately. But Taylor did that in this song. It is so beautiful in all of its deep hurt. I hate the idea that somebody out there heard this song and felt like Taylor was singing about their life. And yet, I know there are many people for whom that is a reality.

For all of its deep hurt and raw emotion, I think this song is important. I think it ends the album with a clear message that the hurts of life, any kind of hurt for that matter, aren’t always as simple as we think. And that’s okay.

17. *the lakes*

So, this is the bonus track to the album. And full disclosure, I have only listened to it a handful of times. But that is because it isn’t my favorite. I literally can’t figure out why. Maybe it’s because it came out later so I wasn’t used to having it. Or maybe it’s the music. Because the lyrics are actually quite lovely and inspiring and great. So I do recommend listening to it and loving it, even if I’m having a hard time incorporating it into my life.

And there you have it. My thoughts, feelings, and overall take on Folklore. It is a spectacular album with countless messages and so, so much beauty. And I believe, overall, so much power. Go give it some listening and love.

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About the author

Jordan Parkinson

Author, historian, baker, firm believer that life isn't as complicated as we make it out to be.

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