It’s 2019, and Taylor Swift is fully committed to her life as a pop star, continuing to explore the sounds that had defined her last two albums, 1989 and Reputation. The album, Lover, launches and, while still incredibly successful, the singles don’t quite reach the heights of those on previous albums, and the era feels a little underbaked. The signs seemed to point to diminishing returns for Taylor Swift. For many artists, this would be the time to disappear for a while, to rest between albums. Maybe that’s what Taylor was planning – we’ll never know for sure – but then, the pandemic struck and everything changed. Swift, locked away at home like the rest of us, began to delve further into her writing and storytelling skills to produce not just one, but two albums of wholly new, high quality content. Folklore felt insane when it released. Mere months after Lover, Swift was back, with a hard pivot into a more alternative sound. Then, at the tail end of 2020, she did it all over again with Evermore. Fans of Swift were thoroughly spoiled, and those who felt that her pop sound was starting to wear a little thin were treated to a while new side to the artist. I find the albums interesting for a number of reasons – the writing is probably the peak of Swift’s work, the instrumentation is lush and the melodies clean and beautiful – but I find myself drawn mostly into the story surrounding these ‘sibling’ releases. Swift repeatedly talks about the forest and the woods in the marketing for these two albums, heck, it’s featured prominently on the cover of both of them. When discussing the release of Evermore, she claimed ‘we were standing on the edge of the folklorian woods and had a choice: to turn and go back or to travel further into the forest of this music’. For Swift, Folklore and Evermore are intrinsically linked to the image of the forest, and it’s this connection that we’ll look at today.
In The Lost Woods, the first article of this feature on forests, we explored some of the ways that forests are used in literature. Swift, very much a literary lyricist, is undoubtedly aware of these connotations and felt that they shared a deep connection with her works. Before moving into the music and its links to the forest, we should take a look at the announcement of Folklore’s imminent release, originally posted on Swift’s Instagram back on 23rd July 2020. The first image we see, the first teaser of the album, is one corner of the cover art – no Swift, no logo, no name, just a picture of some trees. Immediately, we are confronted with a setting for the new stories and worlds explored in the new album. The woods are going to be important. If you doubt that these images are really that deep, take a look at the letter Swift posted a mere day later explaining her inspiration for the new album: ‘It started with imagery. Visuals that popped into my mind and piqued my curiosity’. Then look at the cover in all its glory – Swift, surrounded by trees as light pours in through the branches. She is tiny, the trees massive. The forest seems all-consuming, inescapable. Our pre-conceived notions of the forest as this large, unknowable space combine with the title of the album, folklore, to conjure images of fairy tales, of sprites and magic. Swift herself acknowledges this further, saying of folklore that ‘the lines between fantasy and reality blur and the boundaries between truth and fiction become almost indiscernible’. This idea is expressed further in the music itself, which, in an unusual move for Swift, features a variety of fictional songs, far away from the typical autobiographical fare that the singer has been known to write.
When looking at the music on folklore, songs about Swift, songs about fictional characters, and songs that sit somewhere in between. The trilogy of cardigan, august and betty has become a fan favourite for its exploration of a fantasised love triangle between three high-schoolers and falls firmly in the realm of fiction, while tracks such as mad woman and this is me trying feel decidedly self-referential. Others, like the 1, last great american dynasty, and invisible string inhabit that middle ground – as the listener, you’re never quite sure who Swift is singing about here, and you find yourself lost as you try and fit the pieces together. This is where the structure of folklore really links to our notions of the forest – you find familiar passages, roads that might connect to parts of other songs, but you’re never sure and you end up feeling more and more lost as you sink deeper and deeper into the stories that Swift is weaving. It’s not just through her stories that Swift uses the forest, but also sonically. We’ve already looked at how imagery surrounding the album was so focused on the idea of Swift in the forest, but it permeates the sound as well – when you think of the kind of glistening pop Swift had been producing since 2014, it feels very urban – slick surfaces, polished metal. folklore on the other hand, feels much more organic – Swift has moved into a more alternative, singer-songwriter sound. This new style feels thoroughly in tune with the concept of ‘the forest’. It’s not only Swift that matches these sounds and images – look at albums from Lord Huron, promotional images for Laura Marling, as the instrumentation gets more acoustic, folkier, so too does the forest imagery get stronger.
This journey continued through into evermore, its increasingly dense tales of lost relationships casting a spell over the listener. Swift has previously stated that if foklore is an album for spring and summer, evermore belongs to the autumn and winter. The forest has changed – its leaves are brown and sparse, ice settles in on the edge of the ponds and Swift stands still, looking out over the forest she created. We’ve previously looked at the idea of forests being somewhere unknown to humans, a place wherein we get lost, so it seems fitting that Swift, who, in her own words ‘treated albums as one-off eras’ would lose herself in the best way in the folklorian forest. evermore leans further into the fictional worlds Swift created in folklore – magic swirls and a deep mysticism settles over the songs. willow is clearly Swift at her witchiest (she even ended up a variety of remixes for the track, all named the ___ witch remix), while ivy sounds like it comes to us straight from the worlds of Lord of the Rings. Sonically, the album feels like an extension of what Swift produced with folklore, but, thanks to Swift’s clear vision for the album, it is able to maintain a clear identity of its own. If anything, evermore feels like the culmination of the journey Swift began on folklore – and if the new music she has released in its wake (two collaborations with Big Red Machine) is a sign, its clear that, just like myriad protagonists before her, Swift has emerged from the forests a changed person.