There have been few moments of pure elation in 2020. But two of them have been Taylor Swift’s sudden, seemingly miraculous drops of masterful albums. The first, Folklore,* was a shock not only because it came out of the blue, but also because it was a folk album by one of the great modern pop artists—and Evermore, announced yesterday in a dramatic photograph mosaic on Taylor’s Instagram and dropped today, was a shock because it was a second folk album within six months (and Taylor’s third album since August 2019).
The many stories of Taylor Swift
I’ve been a fan of Taylor Swift for a long time. But I’ve always also been a little suspicious of her carefully curated public persona. When I reviewed Lover for Verily, I wondered, “Has she sold out? . . . is she leveraging these genuine moments and savvy political moves to amplify her own fame? At the end of Lover, it’s still unclear. We can only watch Taylor from afar and hope for the best.” Earlier this year, I reviewed Folklore, with similarly mixed feelings. Was Taylor simply seizing upon a burgeoning trend in music to amplify her already dizzying fame? The picture seemed too carefully curated to be authentic.
On Instagram, Swift described Folklore as spontaneous and imaginative, the fruit of quarantine dreaming: “In isolation my imagination has run wild and this album is the result, a collection of songs and stories that flowed like a stream of consciousness.” As much as I loved this idea, I wasn’t sure whether I believed it. Taylor Swift was quickly hailed as the queen of cardigans and cottagecore, and I just didn’t know if I wanted to hand her that crown so easily. She was a newcomer to the land where Folklore collaborators Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon actually belonged. And while the album was beautiful, Dessner and Vernon’s artistic voices felt a little flattened, the lyrics occasionally lacked depth for the folk/alternative genre, and the whole thing felt like a sudden pivot that could have been done for the shock value.
The very fact that she dropped a second folk album, though, started to win me over. “To put it plainly, we just couldn’t stop writing songs,” said Swift on Instagram. “To try and put it more poetically, it feels like 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.”
Into the woods
It was watching the music video for “Willow” that I began to drop my last hesitations. The imagery of the music video is not a trendy, cottagecore, hipster aesthetic—it’s rich, lush fantasy that doesn’t look like a trend grab. Swift sweeps through the woods in a giant cloak. She ends up with a suspenders-clad farmer boy. The video is mythical, magical, genuine, with no irony or facade. I recognized once again the fantastical quality of Taylor’s imagination that was detectable as far back as “Love Story” and “Long Live”—but here it was right out in the open. Lover’s music videos were ironic, in-your-face, bombastic and stagey spectacles. The music videos for “Cardigan” and “Willow” are aesthetically coherent and feel like a genuine indulgence in what Swift really thinks is beautiful—the beauty of nature, sparkling golden light, cream-colored lace and long dresses, fantasy and magic.
The album isn’t perfect, and it’s certainly not a perfect example of folk-style music, but this actually makes Evermore more compelling. As in Folklore, Taylor’s lyrics sometimes—perhaps even often—lack the lushness of imagery and depth of meaning that can be found in contemporary alternative-folk artists like Bon Iver, Gregory Alan Isakov, and Andrew Bird. Her stories are often simply told, sometimes feeling surface-level. “Champagne Problems” and “Happiness” drag a bit with simplistic phrases like “now my eyes leak acid rain” and “Dom Pérignon, you brought it.” Listening to “Tolerate It” and jotting down in my notes, “I’m still waiting for the melody,” I couldn’t help but think of a friend’s remark in July: “I’m listening to Folklore, I think? It’s so far in the background I gotta squint.”
But here’s the thing—Taylor’s true gift and the key to her fame is not writing enigmatic, experimental pieces, but songwriting that speaks from the heart. Like Folklore, this album is decidedly a Taylor album, and even more than the very genuine Folklore, it feels like a true imaginative flight—all the more so when that storytelling isn’t shiny and perfect.
“I come back stronger than a 90’s trend”
But that’s not to say there’s no skill involved. The highlights on this album are Taylor at her best, lyrics shimmering with just enough ambiguity to stimulate the imagination and with perfect evocations of mood.
“Marjorie,” a tribute to her opera-singer grandmother Marjorie Finlay, is a heart-melting, beautiful piece of work, subtly featuring a background vocal from Finlay herself.
“‘Tis the Damn Season” captures the strange feeling of coming back home as a young adult at Christmas. “Cowboy like Me” and “No Body, No Crime” are listenable, themey romps.
In “Ivy,” the lyric “It’s the goddamn fight of my life / And you started it” couldn’t help but remind me of a rarely-played Swift song from ten years ago—the fantasy-themed “Long Live”: “I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you.” It’s another fantasy reference that makes the album more compelling as a piece of uninhibited imagination.
“Gold Rush” is a shining example of Taylor’s finesse at portraying a specific feeling: this time, the feeling of being in love with someone everyone else loves, resenting them for that reason, and knowing you’ll never end up with them—a sort of mature revisiting of “You Belong With Me,” knowing that sometimes those feelings don’t work out. We hear her fighting for independence, saying some powerful words for a woman to say—I don’t like this. “I don’t like that falling feels like flying ’til the bone crush / Everybody wants you / But I don’t like a gold rush.”
“Willow” is an ethereal and yet eminently listenable love story, peaceful yet enthralling, poetic and yet down-to-earth. Out of the fantastical, woodsy mists comes a surprising line—“I come back stronger than a 90’s trend”—a lyric that Swift has posted to all of her social media bios. It’s the new, more mature version of Lover’s constant protests that she’s grown up and moved on from drama. It’s quirky, just a touch self-deprecating, unexpected, confident. The look in her eyes while singing that lyric in the music video says it all. The song’s style, especially the background vocals, is in places actually reminiscent of 90s alternative artists Loreena McKennitt and Enya—another touch of virtuosic songwriting.
“Long Story Short” is a triumph. The lyric video features a diary page, making the veiled references to Swift’s dramatic past life even more clear. It’s an upbeat song, with the unusual vocal touches that make Taylor Swift songs into earworms: “Long story short, it was a bad ti-ime . . . long story short, I survi-i-ived.” Rather than feeling self-pitying or melodramatic, this is both a vulnerable (she admits that she worried about her previous dating relationships, thinking, “I must look better in the rear view”) and a mature take on her past life, relationships, and drama. She doesn’t take herself too seriously and doesn’t give us too much detail, while still being honest about what happened in the past:
And I fell from the pedestal
Right down the rabbit hole
Long story short, it was a bad time
Pushed from the precipice
Climbed right back up the cliff
Long story short, I survived
What Taylor doesn’t do in this album is as important as what she does. Despite her recent political activism, she doesn’t seize on this moment to make political or ideological statements as she did in Lover, or even artistically air old grievances, as in Folklore’s “Mad Woman.” The result is a more classic album, and her security in her identity is underscored by the collaboration tracks. HAIM sounds like HAIM in “No Body, No Crime”; Matt Berninger sounds like the strange, groany voice we all associate with The National in “Coney Island”; Bon Iver sounds much more like the Bon Iver of his self-titled album’s lush falsetto textures in “Evermore.”
“You and me forevermore”
As is rarely the case (I don’t think it’s ever happened to me with a Taylor Swift record), the title track, “Evermore,” is what hit me the hardest. Like all Swift’s best songs, it can be read on many levels. It’s a personal story about her experience (“motion capture put me in a bad light” is a reference to her role in what Vulture calls “the 2019 horror film Cats”). It’s a relatable story about the experience of depression. And it’s a cathartic, subtle reflection on 2020.
“Gray November, I’ve been down since July,” Taylor begins, drawing us all into the strangeness of experiencing our lives slip away from us since earlier this year. “I replay my footsteps on each stepping stone / Trying to find the one where I went wrong” is a masterful description of the experience of depression, being caught up in self-blame and self-loathing.
And I was catching my breath
Staring out an open window
Catching my death
And I couldn't be sure
I had a feeling so peculiar
That this pain would be for
We’ve all been staring out open windows this year, ostensibly “catching our breath” in a moment of taking a break from work and school but actually worried about catching our death. And just like the experience of depression, and the experience of looking for love, it’s been hard to imagine things ever changing for the better.
From “the violence of the dog days” (perhaps, of summer and the civil unrest it brought) to the desire to just take a break, the song skilfully—but not explicitly—describes the human experience of struggling through 2020 in America. I remember thinking to myself how much I’d like to just have one normal day—one day where everything went back to normal. “Oh, can we just get a pause?” This year, I’ve worried deeply about the effects of COVID on my world (“Can’t not think of all the cost / And the things that will be lost”). I had my moments of rebellion: “Is there a line that I could just go cross?”
Taylor Swift used the word “forevermore” in the final track of Reputation, “New Year’s Day.” It’s a gentle, piano-backed track so different in style from the rest of the album that it sounds like an epilogue: “Candle wax and Polaroids on the hardwood floor / You and me forevermore.” Reputation was written after scandals had darkened Taylor’s life, and right after she started dating her current boyfriend, Joe Alwyn. The final lyrics of Evermore read as hope for finding true love, for finding a way out of depression, and for moving beyond 2020: “And I couldn’t be sure / I had a feeling so peculiar / This pain wouldn’t be for / Evermore.”
In her Instagram reflection on Evermore, Swift posted next to an image of herself at the end of a pier, looking out at a lake:
I have no idea what will come next. I have no idea about a lot of things these days and so I’ve clung to the one thing that keeps me connected to you all. That thing always has and always will be music. And may it continue, evermore.
This time, I believe her. This isn’t part of a masterminded publicity scheme. She doesn’t know what will come next. In fact, none of us has any idea what comes next. But with art like Evermore, we can gather up the courage to go forward with hope.
*Editor’s Note: Both Folklore and Evermore have lowercase-styled album titles and song titles. For clarity, this style has not been duplicated in this piece.