When everything’s clicking for Taylor Swift, the risk is that she’s going to push it too far and overtax the public appetite. On “Mirrorball” from Folklore, she sings, with admirable self-knowledge, “I’ve never been a natural/ All I do is try, try, try.” So when I woke up yesterday to the news that at midnight she was going to repeat the trick she pulled off with Folklore in July—surprise-releasing an album of moody pop-folk songs remote-recorded in quarantine with Aaron Dessner of the National as well as her longtime producer Jack Antonoff—I was apprehensive. Would she trip back into the pattern of overexposure and backlash that happened between 1989 and Reputation?
Listening to the new Evermore, though, that doesn’t feel like such a threat. A better parallel might be to the “Side B” albums that Carly Rae Jepsen put out after both Emotion and Dedicated, springing simply out of the artist’s and her fans’ mutual enthusiasm. Or, closer to Swift’s own impulses here, publishing an author’s book of short stories soon after a successful novel. Lockdown has been a huge challenge for musicians in general, but it liberated Swift from the near-perpetual touring and publicity grind she’s been on since she was a teen, and from her sense of obligation to turn out music that revs up stadium crowds and radio programmers. Swift has always seemed most herself as the precociously talented songwriter; the pop-star side is where her try-hard, A-student awkwardness surfaces most. Quarantine came as a stretch of time to focus mainly on her maturing craft (she turns 31 on Sunday), to workshop and to woodshed. When Evermore was announced, she said that she and her collaborators—clearly mostly Dessner, who co-writes and/or co-produces all but one of these 15 songs—simply didn’t want to stop writing after Folklore.
This record further emphasizes her leap away from autobiography into songs that are either pure fictions or else lyrically symbolic in ways that don’t act as romans à clef. On Folklore, that came with the thrill of a breakthrough. Here, she fine-tunes the approach, with the result that Evermore feels like an anthology, with less of an integrated emotional throughline. But that it doesn’t feel as significant as Folklore is also its virtue. Lowered stakes offer permission to play around, to joke, to give fewer fucks—and this album definitely has the best swearing in Swift’s entire oeuvre.
Because it’s nearly all Dessner overseeing production and arrangements, there isn’t the stylistic variety that Antonoff’s greater presence brought to Folklore. However, Swift and Dessner seem to have realized that the maximalist-minimalism that dominated Folklore, with layers upon layers of restrained instrumental lines for the sake of atmosphere, was too much of a good thing. There are more breaks in the ambience on Evermore, the way there was with Folklore’s “Betty,” the countryish song that was among many listener’s favorites. But there are still moments that hazard misty lugubriousness, and perhaps with reduced reward.
Overall, people who loved Folklore will at least like Evermore too, and the minority of Swift appreciators who disapproved may even warm up to more of the sounds here. I considered doing a track-by-track comparison between the two albums, but that seemed a smidgen pathological. Instead, here is a blatantly premature Day 1 rundown of the new songs as I hear them.
A pleasant yet forgettable starting place, “Willow” has mild “tropical house” accents that recall Ed Sheeran songs of yesteryear, as well as the prolix mixed metaphors Swift can be prone to when she’s not telling a linear story. But not too severely. I like the invitation to a prospective lover to “wreck my plans.” I’m less sure why “I come back stronger than a ’90s trend” belongs in this particular song, though it’s witty. “Willow” is more fun as a video (a direct sequel to Folklore’s “Cardigan” video) than as a lead track, but I’m not mad at it here either.
Written with “William Bowery”—the pseudonym of Swift’s boyfriend Joe Alwyn, as she’s recently confirmed—this is the first of the full story songs on Evermore, in this case a woman describing having walked away from her partner on the night he planned to propose. The music is a little floaty and non-propulsive, but the tale is well painted, with Swift’s protagonist willingly taking the blame for her beau’s heartbreak and shrugging off the fury of his family and friends—“she would have made such a lovely bride/ too bad she’s fucked in the head.” Swift sticks to her most habitual vocal cadences, but not much here goes to waste. Except, that is, for the title phrase, which doesn’t feel like it adds anything substantial. (Unless the protagonist was drunk?) I do love the little throwaway piano filigree Dessner plays as a tag on the end.
This is the sole track Antonoff co-wrote and produced, and it’s where a subdued take on the spirit of 1989-style pop resurges with necessary energy. Swift is singing about having a crush on someone who’s too attractive, too in-demand, and relishing the fantasy but also enjoying passing it up. It includes some prime Swiftian details, like, “With my Eagles t-shirt hanging from your door,” or, “At dinner parties I call you out on your contrarian shit.” The line about this thirst trap’s “hair falling into place like dominos” I find much harder to picture.
“’Tis the Damn Season”
This is where I really snapped to attention. After a few earlier attempts, Swift has finally written her great Christmas song, one to stand alongside “New Year’s Day” in her holiday canon. And it’s especially a great one for 2020, full of things none of us ought to do this year—go home to visit our parents, hook up with an ex, spend the weekend in their bedroom and their truck, then break their hearts again when we leave. But it’s done with sincere yuletide affection to “the only soul who can tell which smiles I’m faking,” and “the warmest bed I’ve ever known.” All the better, we get to revisit these characters later on the album.
On first listen, I found this one of the draggiest Dressner compositions on the record. Swift locates a specific emotional state recognizably and poignantly in this song about a woman trapped (or, she wonders, maybe not trapped?) in a relationship with an emotionally withholding, unappreciative man. But the static keyboard chord patterns and the wandering melody that might be meant to evoke a sense of disappointment and numbness risk yielding numbing and disappointing music. Still, it’s growing on me.
“No Body, No Crime”
Featuring two members of Haim—and featuring a character named after one of them, Este—“No Body, No Crime” is a straight-up contemporary country song, specifically a twist on and tribute to the wronged-woman vengeance songs that were so popular more than a decade ago, and even more specifically “Before He Cheats,” the 2006 smash by Carrie Underwood, of which it’s a near musical clone, just downshifted a few gears. Swift’s intricate variation on the model is that the singer of the song isn’t wreaking revenge on her own husband, but on her best friend’s husband, and framing the husband’s mistress for the murder. It’s delicious, except that Swift commits the capital offence of underusing the Haim sisters purely as background singers, aside from one spoken interjection from Danielle.
This one has some of the same issues as “Tolerate It,” in that it lags too much for too long, but I did find more to focus on musically here. Lyrically and vocally, it gets the mixed emotions of a relatively amicable divorce awfully damned right, if I may speak from painfully direct experience.
This is the song sung from the POV of the small-town lover that the ambitious L.A. actress from “Tis the Damn Season”—Dorothea, it turns out—has left behind in, it turns out, Tupelo. Probably some years past that Xmas tryst, when the old flame finally has made it. “A tiny screen’s the only place I see you now,” he sings, but adds that she’s welcome back anytime: “If you’re ever tired of being known/ For who you know/ You know that you’ll always know me.” It’s produced and arranged with a welcome lack of fuss. Swift hauls out her old high-school-romance-songs vocal tone to reminisce about “skipping the prom/ just to piss off your mom,” very much in the vein of Folklore’s teen-love-triangle trilogy.
A duet with Dessner’s baritone-voiced bandmate in the National, Matt Berninger, “Coney Island” suffers from the most convoluted lyrics on Evermore (which, I wonder unkindly, might be what brought Berninger to mind?). The refrain “I’m on a beach on Coney Island, wondering where did my baby go” is a terrific tribute to classic pop, but then Swift rhymes it with “the bright lights, the merry go,” as if that’s a serviceable shorthand for merry-go-round, and says “sorry for not making you my centerfold,” as if that’s somehow a desirable relationship outcome. The comparison of the bygone affair to “the mall before the internet/ It was the one place to be” is clever but not exactly moving, and Berninger’s lines are worse. Dessner’s droning arrangement does not come to the rescue.
This song is also overrun with metaphors but mostly in an enticing, thematically fitting way, full of good Swiftian dark-fairytale grist. It’s fun to puzzle out gradually the secret that all the images are concealing—an engaged woman being drawn into a clandestine affair. And there are several very good “goddamns.”
“Cowboy Like Me”
The lyrical conceit here is great, about two gold-digging con artists whose lives of scamming are undone by their falling in love. It reminded me of the 1931 pre-Code rom-com Blonde Crazy, in which James Cagney and Joan Blondell act out a very similar storyline. And I mostly like the song, but I can’t help thinking it would come alive more if the music sounded anything like what these self-declared “cowboys” and “villains” might sing. It’s massively melancholy for the story, and Swift needs a far more winningly roguish duet partner than the snoozy Marcus Mumford. It does draw a charge from a couple of fine guitar solos, which I think are played by Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver, who will return shortly).
“Long Story Short”
The drum machine comes as a refreshing novelty at this point. And while this song is mostly standard Taylor Swift torrents of romantic-conflict wordplay (full of golden gates and pedestals and dropping her swords and breaking her high heel, etc.), the pleasure comes in hearing her look back at all that and shrugging, “Long story short, it was a bad ti-i-ime,” “long story short, it was the wrong guy-uy-uy,” and finally, “long story short, I survived.” She passes along some counsel I’m sure she wishes she’d had back in the days of Reputation: “I wanna tell you not to get lost in these petty things/ Your nemeses will defeat themselves.” It’s a fairly slight song but an earned valedictory address.
Swift fan lore has it that she always sequences the real emotional bombshell as Track 5, but here it is at 13, her lucky number. It’s sung to her grandmother, Marjorie Finlay, who died when Swift was in her early teens, and it manages to be utterly personal—down to the sample of Marjorie singing opera on the outro—and simultaneously utterly evocative to anyone who’s been through such grief. The bridge, full of vivid memories and fierce regrets, is the clincher.
This electroacoustic kiss-off song, loaded up with at least a fistful of gecs if not a full 100 by Dessner and co-producers BJ Burton and James McAlister, seems to be, lyrically, one of Swift’s somewhat tedious public airings of some music-industry grudge (on which, in case you don’t get it, she does not want “closure”), but, sonically, it’s a real ear-cleaner at this point on Evermore. Why she seems to shift into a quasi-British accent for fragments of it is anyone’s guess. But I’m tickled by the line, “I’m fine with my spite and my tears and my beers and my candles.”
I’m torn about the vague imagery and vague music of the first few verses of the album’s final, title track. But when Vernon, in full multitracked upper-register Bon Iver mode, kicks in for the duet in the middle, there’s a jolt of urgency that lands the redemptive ending—whether it’s about a crisis in love or the collective crisis of the pandemic or perhaps a bit of both—and satisfyingly rounds off the album.