Six years ago Mother Jones staffers Ben Dreyfuss and James West hung around the office after everyone else had left, sipped cognac, and listened to Taylor Swift’s latest album, 1989. They published their immediate reactions to each of the tracks here. Their environment fit the album’s party vibe.
We, unfortunately, could not keep up that tradition this year when Taylor released her surprise eighth studio album, folklore, last Friday. The indie-adjacent project was something new for Swift, who partnered with a member of The National, sang alongside Bon Iver, and invited Lana Del Rey’s mixers to master the album. Instant, cognac-infused reactions might be the way to chat about a pivot to pop. But to fit folklore‘s gestalt, a Slack chat after a few days of digestion was apt. Here is a (very lightly) edited transcript of our discussion below.
Track 1: “the 1”
Abigail Weinberg: I like this song. It’s understated and poignant.
Sam Van Pykeren: I might even go as far as to say this might be my fave off the album. Which is wild, it’s the FIRST TRACK.
AW: The 1! And the line about thinking you recognize someone at the bus stop, but “I didn’t though.” Too good.
SVP: I think it really gets to the heart of Taylor’s mythology, this idea of true love, “the 1,” etc.
AW: Definitely. Remember when she used to not swear?
Track 2: “cardigan”
SVP: This song. I get chills every time. The melisma on “sensual.”
AW: OK, I’m fascinated by the evolution of Taylor’s mentions of clothing in her songs. Remember “she wears short skirts, I wear tee shirts, she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers”?
SVP: And then there’s “Dress.”
AW: And “Style.”
SVP:The through-line of clothing evolves as she does.
AW: “I got that good girl faith and a tight little skirt.”
SVP: Each seems to be emblematic of her age at the time.
AW: Now it’s “vintage tee, brand new phone, high heels on cobblestones.”
AW: Why do you think it’s a cardigan as opposed to, like, a sweater?
SVP: Hmmm good Q. Probably for the syllables lol.
Track 3: “the last great american dynasty”
SVP: The way Swift can tap into Americana is next level. And if Taylor Swift is anything, she is a storyteller.
AW: For sure.
SVP: This is just the sequel to “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” a fave off Lover for me.
AW: But a lot more understated and less poppy.
SVP: Totally. That was the high school story, now we’re getting this young adult who’s figuring out her world while she feels the pressure of the world glaring down on her. The way she can build an entire world in one verse is insane.
AW: This whole album reminds me of Betty Draper from Mad Men.
AW: I’m totally stealing that thought from someone on Twitter. But this song brings up the concept of a “mad woman,” which is fleshed out more later in the album on “Mad Woman.” Plus, there’s a song called “Betty”!
SVP: The way she slips from third to first person. So easy but so effective. I feel like that can be an easy cop out/reveal for songwriters to sort of fake a “switch,” but in this…it works. It supports the story rather than being a trick.
Track 4: “exile (feat. Bon Iver)”
AW: Honestly, I could take this or leave it. I’m not crazy about Bon Iver.
SVP: 100 percent.
AW: This track really just feels like filler to appeal to the indie crowd. And as a sucker for like “alternative rock,” I see right through it.
SVP: Trying to get all those midwest IPA drinkers to stream her album.
SVP: Which, respect. And it’s not a bad song, just a weak one.
Track 5: “my tears ricochet”
AW: I love the sort of muffled intro on this song. Reminds me of “Ribs.”
SVP: Oh shit. I didn’t even make that connection.
AW: He’s the reason the teardrops ricochet on my guitar.
SVP: Hahhahahah. One of the huge appeals to Taylor is that we’ve grown up with her, right?
AW: Oh, for sure.
SVP: And with most artists I feel like they try and reimagine themselves for each “era.” And while Taylor has done that with a couple of her albums, this feels like a break from that, bringing us full circle back to her early years of simple storytelling and specificity in her lyrics that could kill.
AW: Yeah. It’s definitely a new musical style, but she is her same old self. She never purports to be anything she’s not.
SVP: Right! Which is weird, because everyone thinks she’s so fake. But when, in reality, has she ever not been what she’s said she is?
AW: You have to take her at face value.
SVP: Totally! I enjoyed that track. Classic slowjam.
Track 6: “mirrorball”
SVP: I LOVE “Mirrorball.” I love the Christmas vibes. I love the softness in her voice in this track, but the guitar strings, the way they build under her, make her voice feel so powerful.
AW: Yeah, I’m a sucker for layered vocals.
SVP: She does love a layered vocal.
AW: OK, but what the fuck is a mirrorball?
AW: It’s like “Wonderwall.”
SVP: I’m assuming it’s like a disco ball? I don’t totally know.
Track 7: “seven”
SVP: When I first heard this song I thought it was a feature. Did not sound like her at first!
AW: So…what is this song about? She says, “I hit my peak at seven” and the rest of the song sounds like it’s addressing a child.
SVP: Feels like this is a love song to your youth?
AW: Oh, darling, don’t you ever grow up…
AW: It’s a cute, sweet song. I like it.
Track 8: “august”
SVP: THIS SONG. I looooove it. I want Taylor to do a song for every month. The way she captures the sentiment of summer ending…it hits hard.
AW: Summer love. This bridge is so good.
SVP: Sooo good. It’s kinda fascinating how summer love has become a trope of sorts. Like why is summer so conducive to brief and passionate love affairs?
AW: School’s out!
SVP: But even for adults!
AW: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s like the opposite of cuffing season.
SVP: UGH TAYLOR. This song makes my heart hurt. In a good way, but that’s just like her. She makes your heart hurt.
AW: Great outro too, the next track is like the grown-up version.
SVP: I love a long fade. It’s the perfect ending to the song which is all about the drawn-out last days of summer.
Track 9: “this is me trying”
AW: And now it’s autumn, and the wheels are rusting.
SVP: This feels to me like her most self-aware song.
AW: There’s something irritating to me about Taylor Swift, one of the biggest superstars on Earth, singing, “So I got wasted like all my potential.” But then I remember that it’s just a song.
SVP: Totally. I was having this convo with my friend about the album, about how he doesn’t really like Taylor ’cause she has everything in the world, but has built an empire out of the one thing she “complains” about never having. But it hit even harder to me that, look, no matter how much you have you’ll always be searching for your space in the world and a relationship with others.
AW: That is certainly true. I don’t know why, but this song doesn’t really do it for me. It felt like the album had so much momentum and then sort of rolled to a halt.
SVP: I love this track. But I get what you’re saying about the pacing. It’s really hard because even the worst songs on this album I love.
Track 10: “illicit affairs”
SVP: Yes. This song. Yes.
AW: It’s great.
SVP: Classic Taylor guitar string song and lyrics.
Track 11: “invisible string”
AW: Fun fact: The universe is actually made up of tiny invisible strings.
SVP: One of her strongest on the album.
AW: I love the verse where she’s just referring to how famous she is. “Bad was the blood of the song in the cab.” The waitress saying she looks like an American singer.
Track 12: “mad woman”
SVP: MOUTHFUCK. I can NOT believe she said “mouth fuck.”
AW: Omfg. What a double entendre. I didn’t even realize that.
SVP: This song is so great. Like this is what Reputation should’ve been. It’s not a Taylor album without some type of song taking on the patriarchy!
AW: Have you seen Mad Men?
SVP: First couple seasons.
AW: OK, so you know Betty.
AW: I just can’t stop thinking about how, yeah, Betty can be disagreeable, but she’s driven to madness by Don cheating on her and constantly gaslighting her.
SVP: 100 percent.
AW: Somehow I’m reminded of the scene where Betty shoots at the neighbor’s doves.
SVP: That’s because as a patriarchal society we drive women to insanity. When they are themselves, or express discontent, they’re seen as “mad.”
SVP: Taylor’s always been one to talk about misogyny in her music (and life), but this is the first time I feel it’s been done effectively.
Track 13: “epiphany”
AW: “Something med school did not cover”…you mean COVID?
Track 14: “betty”
AW: HARMONICA. I love it.
SVP: The harmonica.
SVP: Who’s Inez? What rumors is she spreading?
AW: Quote from Taylor: “There’s a collection of three songs I refer to as The Teenage Love Triangle. These three songs explore a love triangle from all three people’s perspectives at different times in their lives.”
SVP: Woah. I love this chorus, too. It’s full of anger ready to be yelled out.
AW: I love when women songwriters do songs from the perspectives of men.
SVP: It’s incredible how complex relationships are and that entire worlds are built around them, and fall around them.
Track 15: “peace”
AW: I don’t have a lot to say about this song lol. It’s fine. Maybe it will grow on me.
SVP: Yeah, “peace” was all right. As you can tell I didn’t have much to say about it also.
Track 15: “hoax”
SVP: This track is fine as well, but I felt like if she cut it at “betty” and ended with “epiphany,” we’d be fine.
AW: I agree. Why does every album have to be an hour long?
SVP: So, I have a theory about Taylor and her albums and how she’s evolved in relation to her fame and celebrity.
AW: Tell me more.
SVP: I broke this down in our Taylor Swift Slack chat. (Yes, dear reader, that exists.) I’m a full believer (and even mentioned this in my Lover piece) that Taylor’s maturity and relationship with her public persona can be grouped into her work. (Art reflects the artist??? What??) But like her pre-teen/teen psyche is so present in her first three albums, then you hit Red which is sort of this from-teenager-to-young-adult album, then 1989 is her early 20s, right? It’s both fun and mean. It’s so intensely about that type of young fleeting relationship you have in your early 20s. Then you hit Reputation. That’s her “I’m an adult” album, you know? That time when you start to figure out how you are in relation to other relationships and the world. Then you get to Lover, and it’s the perfect late-20s wrap-up, right? It’s both fun and mature. It is reflective and silly, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and looks forward, in a sense. Then you have this now! She turns 30 in a couple of months, and you get this next-level maturity in both the lyrics and the sounds.
AW: It’s funny how so much of this album is about teenage stuff. A lot of nostalgia.
SVP: But through the eyes of a grown woman! Well, where does this fall in your album ranking? This probably is my favorite Taylor album.
AW: This falls behind 1989 for me, tbh.