A fine madness: Taylor Swift goes inward, and indie, on quarantine classic 'Folklore'


Less than a year after the release of her last album, Lover — and with less than 24 hours’ notice — Taylor Swift has surprise-dropped her eighth studio LP, Folklore, written and recorded entirely in isolation. Perhaps it’s not a surprise, however, that Folklore marks a complete 180 from Lover’s rainbow-bright arena-pop. With any sort of arena action obviously off the table in the COVID age, the homebound Swift has turned inward and indie, creating an instant quarantine classic with the remote help of the National’s Aaron Dessner (who co-wrote and produced 11 of the record’s 16 tracks), frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff, and, on the duet “Exile,” alt-folk darling Bon Iver.

Taylor Swift (Photo: Beth Garrabrant)
Taylor Swift (Photo: Beth Garrabrant)

“Before this year I probably would’ve overthought when to release this music at the ‘perfect’ time, but the times we’re living in keep reminding me that nothing is guaranteed. My gut telling me that if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world. That’s the side of uncertainty I can get on board with,” Swift explained in an Instagram post Thursday morning, announcing the album’s arrival that evening.

While Folklore’s release may seem impulsive, the album is fully realized, hardly a lo-fi bedroom recording — and, unlike recent uneven stabs at folk-rock cred by some of her pop peers (Justin Timberlake’s Man of the Woods, Lady Gaga’s Joanne, Miley Cyrus’s Younger Now), it doesn’t come across as a marketing stunt. The Miss Americana star has gone convincingly Americana — not a huge stretch, given her country roots — with many critics and fans hailing Folklore as her finest and most authentic effort yet.

While the pandemic-era album finds Swift in an understandably mellow, melancholy, and meditative mood, there’s one song that combines the snaky rage of Reputation’s “Look What You Made Me Do” with the snarky social commentary of last year’s “The Man.” And it’s that track, “Mad Woman,” that seems to be gaining the most traction on Twitter, especially among characteristically Easter-egg-hunting Swifties. Some fans and journalists theorize that “Mad Woman’s” barbed lyrics target Swift’s nemeses at her former record label Big Machine, Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun; others interpret the song as a rumination on her long-running feud with Kanye West. (Incidentally, many fans have also read much into Swift’s decision to put out Folklore on the same day as West’s 10th album, Donda: With Child, although that now seems to be a moot point: As of this writing, Donda has not yet dropped.)

Lyrically if not sonically, “Mad Woman” is a great, unapologetic woman-scorned anthem in the vain of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” or Kelis’s “Caught Out There.” Swift keenly examines how society vilifies “difficult” women who dare to express their (entirely justified) anger and aren’t ready to make nice and don’t need to calm down, with a chorus that positively seethes: “Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy/What about that?/And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry/And there's nothing like a mad woman/What a shame she went mad/No one likes a mad woman/You made her like that.” Another line, “It’s obvious that wanting me dead has really brought you two together,” is a notable zinger, as is Swift’s historic first use of an F-bomb in a song.

“Mad Woman” may seem jarring on such a gentle, lulling record, but its theme (an attitude explored in the newly politically unmuzzled Swift’s above-mentioned documentary, Miss Americana) weaves its way elsewhere through Folklore’s pretty tinkling pianos and hushed acoustics. For instance, in “Seven,” Swift notes, “Before I learned civility/I used to scream ferociously/Any time I wanted.” And in the epic “The Last Great American Dynasty,” she tells the tale of eccentric socialite Rebekah Harkness (the famous former inhabitant of Swift’s Rhode Island mansion), a woman whose folklore, so to speak, has inspired its own Twitter thread — and has seemingly inspired Swift.

“There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen/She had a marvelous time ruining everything,” Swift sings. “Fifty years is a long time/Holiday House sat quietly on that beach/Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits/Then it was bought by me… the loudest woman this town has ever seen.”

Ironically, by making her softest, quietest album, it seems Taylor Swift has made her loudest artistic statement.

Download/stream Folklore on Apple Music.

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