“exile” describes two ex-lovers seeing each other following a break-up. Justin Vernon describes feelings of confusion about how quickly a lover moved on, while Swift offers a perspective about repeated warning signs that the relationship was no longer working. It’s also worth noting the contrast between Vernon’s rougher voice and Swift’s smoother one, which mirrors the contrast between their views of the relationship.

The song prompted many comparisons to Swift’s 2012 track The Last Time, another song that discusses the downfall of a relationship. Much like exile, Swift and featured artist Gary Lightbody’s voices contrast in tone, highlighting their differences.
“exile” is one of many folklore songs to contain a movie motif — other songs to do so include the 1, this is me trying, and hoax. It’s also her first collaboration with Bon Iver, who she called one of her “musical heroes” in an Instagram post announcing folklore.

I can see you standin', honey
With his arms around your body
Laughin' but the joke's not funny at all

There’s an interesting parallel to Swift’s August 2019 track Lover (‘You’ll save all your dirtiest jokes for me’). Swift put a rather cheesy joke in the song’s music video when she sang this line (‘Why did the ketchup blush? [Because] she saw the salad dressing’).

The line may also be a reference to Begin Again (‘But you throw your head back laughing like a little kid, I think it’s strange that you think I’m funny ‘cause he never did’)

And it took you five whole minutes
To pack us up and leave me with it
Holdin' all this love out here in the hall

I think I've seen this film before
And I didn't like the ending

Melodically and thematically, this is reminiscent of Swift’s 2010 track If This Was A Movie (‘Come back to me like you would if this was a movie, baby, what about the ending?’)

You're not my homeland anymore
So what am I defendin' now?

This metaphor of defending one’s homeland is one of many references to war throughout the album (notably in epiphany, which draws inspiration from her grandfather’s experience in the military, but also ‘sit with you in the trenches’ in peace and the reference to battleships in my tears ricochet)

You were my town

This draws a parallel to Swift’s August 2019 song False God (‘I can’t talk to you when you’re like this, staring out the window like I’m not your favourite town’)

Now I'm in exile seein' you out
I think I've seen this film before

Hoo, hoo-ooh
Hoo, hoo-ooh
Hoo, hoo-ooh

I can see you starin', honey
Like he's just your understudy

In theatre terminology, an ‘understudy’ is the actor who learns to play the part of another so they can replace the original actor at a moment’s notice if needed.

In this context, Swift’s former lover looks at her current lover as if he’s nothing more than a temporary and subpar replacement for himself. This line deepens the imagery of their love being pre-scripted, with the film having already played out before.

Like you'd get your knuckles bloody for me
Second, third, and hundredth chances

This line echoes a sentiment from Swift’s 2008 track You’re Not Sorry (‘All this time I was wasting, hoping you would come around, I’ve been giving out chances every time, and all you do is let me down’).

It’s also reminiscent of her 2012 song The Last Time, on which she gives a partner one final chance to repair their relationship.

Balancin' on breaking branches
Those eyes add insult to injury

I think I've seen this film before
And I didn't like the ending
I'm not your problem anymore
So who am I offending now?

Earlier, Bon Iver sings ‘So what am I defending now?’. This change of lyrics in the chorus conveys the difference between the two personas, as one still feels like they are guarding their past lover whereas the other is portrayed as attacking them.

You were my crown
Now I'm in exile seein' you out
I think I've seen this film before
So I'm leavin' out the side door

So step right out
There is no amount
Of cryin' I can do for you

All this time
We always walked a very thin line

Swift included a similar description of a relationship’s fragility on October 2010’s Haunted (‘You and I walk a fragile line, I had known it all this time, but I never thought I’d live to see it break’)

You didn't even hear me out (You didn't even hear me out)
You never gave a warning sign (I gave so many signs)

All this time
I never learned to read your mind (Never learned to read my mind)
I couldn't turn things around (You never turned things around)
'Cause you never gave a warning sign (I gave so many signs)
So many signs
So many signs (You didn't even see the signs)

I think I've seen this film before
And I didn't like the ending
You're not my homeland anymore
So what am I defending now?
You were my town
Now I'm in exile seein' you out
I think I've seen this film before
So I'm leaving out the side door

So step right out
There is no amount
Of cryin' I can do for you

All this time
We always walked a very thin line
You didn't even hear me out (You didn't even hear me out)
You never gave a warning sign (I gave so many signs)

All this time
I never learned to read your mind (Never learned to read my mind)
I couldn't turn things around (You never turned things around)
'Cause you never gave a warning sign (I gave so many signs)

All this time (So many times)
I never learned to read your mind (So many signs)
I couldn't turn things around
'Cause you never gave a warning sign (Never gave a warning sign)