Kevin Mazur—Netflix/Getty Images; Getty Images
July 24, 2020 8:03 PM EDT

If there’s one thing we know about Taylor Swift, it’s that she works hard. In her documentary released earlier this year, Miss Americana, the intense pace of Swift’s life — and the similarly intense pressures of the scrutiny she finds herself under — was laid bare for all to analyze.

But then the coronavirus pandemic swept in and, presumably, cleared her pop star slate. Swift was left with her privacy, as lockdowns shuttered us all into our homes. On social media, she was neither cryptically silent nor strategically active: she seemed, for the first time in a long time, like she was just living her life and drinking wine on her couch like many of us, big plans on hold.

But even in her downtime, curtains drawn on her celebrity, Swift was creating. The July 23 release of Folklore, her 16-track eighth album, came as a surprise even to devout followers: only 11 months after Lover, it was the first time she’d put out a project on less than a two-year schedule. Swift didn’t bother with the extensive teasing release of past albums; she announced her work on Thursday, rolled it out on Friday and then will sit back over the weekend and enjoy the warm response.

A new sound

In releasing Folklore, Swift was clear and direct about her intent and her work. She shared the names of all the major collaborators she worked with: pop producer and longtime musical partner Jack Antonoff, who she called “musical family;” her “musical heroes,” the moody rock band The National’s Aaron Dessner and indie god Justin Vernon of Bon Iver; a mysteriously-named collaborator called William Bowery.

That, and the greyscale, woodsy images she teased the release with, announced her new direction: alternative pop-folk. In her delicate, confessional singing and melodies there are hints of fellow artists like Lana Del Rey, for whom she has openly expressed admiration before, on “Cardigan” and Phoebe Bridgers on “Seven.” There’s the twinkling Postal-Service-referencing intro on “The Last Great American Dynasty,” the blissed-out orchestral walls of sound on “Epiphany,” the serving of elegiac Sufjan Stevens keys on “Invisible String.”

Despite her start as a Nashville darling in the country scene, Swift has always been a musical chameleon. She evolved into rock-pop by 1989, stretched herself into hip-hop on the spiky Reputation, went full-throated pop on Lover. Folklore is what a lot of fans have been waiting for all along: a lengthy, emotionally-wrought indie album. Its heart is folk storytelling. Its production is every kind of thing fans have heard and loved on breakup albums in the last decade. Its vision is a grey-blue soundscape: an autumnal album dropped on us in the heat of summer, the first full project of this kind from Swift, inhabiting a truly melancholy space she’s mainly hinted at in past ballads.

But those ballads have often been her most poignant work. Folklore meets her exactly where she’s strongest, right now. And the rest of us? Still adjusting to pandemic life, still engaged in important conversations about our country’s racist history, we might also want something at just this unhurried tempo.

“And some things you just can’t speak about”

It would be fruitless to break down every Swift lyric; the songwriting can be poetically obtuse, and she’s telling many stories, from many character points of view, with many aching regrets. Swift has historically been one of our most confessional pop stars in her music, often mining her personal archives for material. Folklore is a little more, well, folkloric: “The lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible,” she shared in an advance statement about the lyrical content. Still, as she announced in advance, she buried plenty of Easter eggs in her words for her fans to unpack at will.

The opening song, “The 1,” is an ode to what could have been. The “who” of it all, of course, remains murky.

As avid listeners well know, Swift loves riffs on the past. She also loves to weave in references to her old music, a trail of breadcrumbs for fans to follow from era to era. “To kiss in cars and downtown bars was all we needed,” she sings on “Cardigan,” and it sounds a lot like an echo of her lyrics on Lover’s “Cornelia Street” (“We were in the backseat, drunk on something stronger than the drinks in the bar”). And when she sings “You drew stars around my scars” on the same song, close followers might flash back to the “guitar string scars” of “Lover.”

Every song has these kinds of lyrical winks, reinforcing the universe that Swift has crafted even as she expands it with her newfound layers of fantasy and character. “Mad Woman,” for instance, is the story of a “misfit widow getting gleeful revenge,” according to her note on social media. But lines like “And women like hunting witches too” harken back to her Reputation era (“They’re burning all the witches even if you aren’t one,” she sings on “I Did Something Bad”).

Some songs are more mysterious than others. “Exile,” with Bon Iver, reeks with the pain of parting. “Hoax,” a quiet piano ballad, details a relationship flawed but lasting. (“No other sadness in the world would do” is a devastatingly universal reminder of that bittersweet sensation.) “The Last Great American Dynasty,” in contrast, is specific and historical: the story of socialite Rebekah Harkness, the prior inhabitant of Swift’s own expansive Rhode Island estate. On “Epiphany,” Swift dives into the experience of another historical character: her grandfather, Dean, when he landed on the beaches of Guadalcanal in 1942. “And some things,” she sings after describing a harrowing moment of war, “you just can’t speak about.”

OK, but what about “Betty”?

One of the songs on Folklore that caught the most early attention online is “Betty,” a late-album track that sees Swift return most directly to her country roots. (Cue the plaintive harmonica.) In her notes, Swift explained: “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.” Consensus has led listeners to believe the three songs in question are “Betty,” “Cardigan” and “August.” Woven together, they tell a story of betrayal, heartache and sweet teen angst.

But “Betty” can also be read as vaguely autobiographical, which some fans are keen to do. The two other characters in the trio, James and Ines, happen to be the names of the two daughters of Swift’s friends Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds, deepening the connection to her real-life friend circle and the Swiftian world we know. Either way, the web of perspectives and emotions outlined in the track trio presents Swift fans with plenty of material to parse through as they unravel the mystery of Swift’s feelings and her new album’s connotations.

The quarantine album

In quarantine, any album release finds new resonance. With so few events to attend, live music still mostly canceled and many artists postponing their work, fresh projects are bound to find rapt audiences whether or not they are coming from Taylor Swift.

But Swift, being Swift, was always destined to conjure up a powerful reaction. In the past year, Taylor Swift’s public dispute with music manager Scooter Braun over her music catalog made headlines and raised questions about the ownership artists have over the music they create. Prior to that, she often drew tabloid scrutiny. Her response has often been to write it all out: address past relationships, excavate heartbreak and frustration, insist on resilience. That Folklore is foggy, that it relies more on smart songwriting and less on speculation about her personal life and complicated visual cues, suggests it’s bound for a long shelf life.

Quarantine has us all dragging up old memories and wondering what’s still real. Folklore isn’t the pop star album that will drive worries away and replace them with sparkle. It’s an artist who’s extended her ambitions to looking back and getting a little lost in the memory haze, digging up an old favorite cardigan for comfort.

Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com.

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