OK, I’ll admit it. I like Taylor Swift. Like most, I’ve enjoyed her music since I was a little kid, invigorated by the tell-all, diary-like formulation of her songs. Her songs felt like gossip, like dunking against anyone who ever wronged you, like youthfulness and all its indiscretions.
It’s a really special thing to feel like an artist has aged with you, which is the way so many of us feel about Taylor Swift. Her constant reinventions leave space for life’s natural rhythm of growth and change. The somewhat acoustic, somewhat pop sound of Red spoke to a middle school me in need of the catharsis only singing “All Too Well” (whilst never having experienced a real heart break) could bring. Her first traditional pop record, 1989, was released during my freshman year of high school, the exact moment my tastes streamlined into what I heard on the radio.
Contrary to Swift’s typical style, the songs on folklore are more like fictional short stories than diary entries. Three of the songs are even chapters in a longer saga, (“betty,” “august” and “cardigan”). Other songs follow characters through struggles ranging from addiction (“this is me trying”) to the more unusual phenomena of chronicling the life of the woman who used to own your mansion (“the last great american dynasty”). The multiplicity and collectivity of this album was certainly a welcome shift in quarantine, a time of such massive disconnection from others.
Swift herself has mentioned folklore is meant to symbolize spring and summer, while evermore, its sister album, embodies fall and winter. But it’s difficult for me to imagine folklore without envisioning that period of time when summer turns to fall and evermore without thinking of the winter.
So now that it’s fall and ‘tis the damn season, here’s my ranking of folklore’s most fall playlist worthy songs.
4. the 1
It feels fitting to start this list off with “the 1” (its name of course being a double entendre for its romantic connotations as well as its placement as the beginning of folklore). Often overshadowed by “cardigan,” the 1 is seemingly simple, its piano part mainly consisting of the same two or three chords. The song depicts the experience of processing a relationship’s end, through bouncy yet subdued piano and simple yet effective lyrics to match: “It would’ve been fun / If you would’ve been the one.”
The lyric “the 1” is also given a third meaning in the song’s bridge, as Swift sings, “I persist and resist the temptation to ask you / If one thing had been different / Would everything be different today?” The lyric “the 1” in this instance can also mean the one thing that stood in the way of the speaker’s relationship with their beloved from surviving. Figuring the end of the relationship in the same terms as one might think of their one true love shows how precarious love can be–this person could be the one, or there might be one thing standing in their way which thwarts the entire relationship.
Moreover, in pop music, verses/choruses typically contain four chords, working together in a chord progression to give the impression of something building. However, the start of this song contains just two alternating chords (F and C). This means you don’t get that same feeling of build. Instead, the opening chords give the impression of something opening and closing, leaving and then immediately returning, mirroring the self-contained arc of the song. The fact that folklore begins with an ending is interesting in its own right (again, how is it not the fall album?).
This sense of closure makes it the perfect fall listen.
3. illicit affairs
An often neglected song off the album, “illicit affairs” chronicles an affair between the speaker and an unknown beloved, from the perspective of the person more invested in the relationship.
The briskness in the guitar’s fingerpicking pattern (i.e. plucked notes rather than strummed chords) whisks the listener away, the same way the speaker is whisked into an affair. The minor notes in the chord progression seem to signal the precariousness of the speaker’s relationship.
There’s something very heartbreaking about the simplicity of the song’s lyrics, which remove the idea of an affair from something romanticized to the harsh realities of being someone’s secret.
“That’s the thing about illicit affairs / And clandestine meetings and longing stares / It’s born from just one single glance / But it dies and it dies and it dies / A million little times.”
The romance of the affair is built up through the idea of “clandestine meetings” and “longing stares” only to be undercut immediately by the death of this romance. The repetition of the words “it dies” alongside the quickening guitar part give the impression of the relationship splintering, staging the painful process of its end.
A highlight of the song is the self-aware indignation of the speaker in the bridge–as they reckon with the fact that they are frustrated with their beloved, and their situation, but that they love this person. The lyric: “You taught me a secret language I can’t speak with anyone else” is particularly poignant, depicting how losing someone’s presence in your life can feel like you lose a part of yourself. What do you do with a language if there’s no one to talk to? How do you deal with losing the only person who could understand you?
The fact that it is a lesser known song from folklore makes it a perfect one to revisit this fall, providing listeners with a fresh take on a year old album.
“august” is one of the songs in the James-Betty love triangle, told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, whom I’ll call August, for clarity’s sake. August is in love with James and has a summer fling with him, but ultimately loses him–or rather realizes he was never hers.
“august” details the feeling of summer slipping away into fall, a relationship slipping away, the realization that, much like the seasons, it was never meant to be something permanent. Written with a sense of knowing the ending, it curtails any hope August could’ve had of their relationship becoming something more, even as it shows listeners the hope August used to feel that this might happen:
“Wanting was enough / for me it was enough / to live for the hope of it all / cancel plans just in case you’d call”
The heartache of this song then comes from not just the relationship’s impermanence and one-sidedness, but the fact that we know it’s doomed from the start and yet we still have to hear it unfold.
One of Swift’s biggest strengths as a songwriter is her ability to take the feelings of young people seriously, and “august” showcases this too well to not be included on the ranking (even if it’s more of a summer transition to fall song).
1. invisible string
This song melts my heart everytime I hear it. “Isn’t it just so pretty to think? / All along there was some invisible string / Tying you to me.” Even if your heart is made of stone, it’s a sweet sentiment.
The speaker is almost certainly Swift speaking about her partner Joe Alwyn, based on the details listeners receive, making it the only song off the album to be clearly biographical.
There’s a plucky but gentle happiness to this song. It seems to enact what Swift details in “Daylight,” released on her album Lover just 11 months prior: “I used to think love would be burning red / But it’s golden.” Much like in “Daylight,” gold imagery recurs throughout “invisible string”–specifically in moments where the speaker is with their beloved. From the “color of the leaves / When I showed you around Centennial Park” to the color of the string itself (“One single thread of gold tied me to you”), the song details a love not devoid of passion but characterized by different emotions: certainty and peace. Their love isn’t so much an entity to be passionately fought for, but a natural, inevitable process by which two already connected people are pulled together.
The song verges on being cheesy, but is redeemed by its own self-awareness. The inverted, story-book like structure of the verse’s opening lines “Green was the color of the grass” and its playful references to Swift’s discography “Bad was the blood of the song in the cab” give the song a self-reflexive over-the-topness that allows its listener to divulge in its faithful, glimmering romance.
The golden imagery alone has to rank it in the top of folklore’s most fall playlist worthy bops.
Image Source: Entertainment Weekly