Hidden within the new Taylor Swift album we were gifted with at the stroke of midnight is a teenage love triangle, told from distinct perspectives in three separate songs: “Cardigan,” “August,” and “Betty.” “I created character arcs and recurring themes that map out who is singing about who,” she explained.
Outside of this triangle, however, is a whole other mess: “Illicit Affairs,” co-written by Jack Antonoff. With twinkling instrumentation that includes a pedal steel guitar, it’s the underrated romantic tragedy of Folklore. The story starts in “beautiful rooms” and ends “with meetings in parking lots,” adding up to a song that makes you halt your rocking chair and lean in a little closer. Swift always excels at imagery in her songs, but Folklore takes her narratives to a new level of resonant detail. There are high heels (“Cardigan,” “Mirrorball”), skateboards (“Betty”), and yogurt shops (“Invisible String”). And on “Illicit Affairs,” she expertly packs a tale of infidelity into just a few short verses, complete with abandoned perfume, secret language, and the lies that seamlessly stitch it all together.
In some ways, the lyrics are reminiscent of another recent song: the emotional affair sketched out on Phoebe Bridgers’ “Savior Complex.” But here, the crocodile tears run a little deeper. The climax in the final verse — in which Swift declares “Don’t call me kid/Don’t call me baby” — is enough to make Rick regret his final words to Ilsa in Casablanca. She untangles her fury, taking her guard down in the process. She wants to scream “Look at this godforsaken mess that you made me,” but she doesn’t. Instead, she boils her hurt down to final words, a sign-off for the ages. “For you, I would ruin myself,” she sings. “A million little times.”
Find a playlist of all of our recent Songs You Need to Know selections on Spotify.