Taylor Swift might be the only person on earth having a truly productive 2020. Deep into re-recording her old songs in the midst of a dramatic custody battle for her masters and only four and a half short months after dropping her masterpiece, folklore, Swift has elected to release another set of tracks in the same indie-folk vein. Dubbed a “sister record,” evermore doesn’t quite reach up to the same lofty heights, but it’s still a beautifully haunting, intimate and shockingly great project from an artist formerly known for her otherworldly talents in marketing and gimmickry. Joining back up with The National’s Aaron Dessner (and Jack Antonoff for a single standout track) on production, Swift’s songwriting and borderline hypnotic voice are as captivating as they were on the last project. Not every song is a perfect, mindblowing piece to the puzzle this time around, but there are still so many more great stories to explore for fans of folklore. There’s even a murder mystery. Swift has given us another treat at the end of the year.
The album opens with its lead single, “willow,” which is honestly one of the weaker tracks here. After completely immersing listeners into the album’s world with “the 1” on folklore, expectations were admittedly likely far too high for another opening track of the same calibre. The subtle meandering piano behind Swift’s melody throughout the track is an excellent touch that really highlights the sweeter parts of her voice and the slightly dark and ominous tone to the guitar loop is a nice signal to the more intense narratives to come, but the melody in the chorus feels like an unresolved chord that could have easily been fixed. Luckily, from there we get right back into the emotional rollercoaster that is Taylor Swift’s recent music. The track “champagne problems” shows just how much Swift’s songwriting and personality can take over and carry things – musically, it’s essentially a piano version of the 4 chords backdrop that so many mashup artists have been mocking for years, but it draws you in all the same. There’s a kind of inexplicable quality Swift has tapped into recently that makes her voice completely entrancing and irresistible – breathy and innocent on the surface, yet wracked by decades of emotional baggage. Here, she tells the story of a woman struggling with mental health issues who turns down a seemingly perfect marriage proposal for reasons she can’t even quite understand. While folklore’s stories were supposedly all made up, there’s always a tiny easter egg connecting to Swift’s own life. Hearing her deliver the song’s title in a beleaguered lower register shows just how much the track means to her personally, and it comes across in an incredibly powerful way. Jack Antonoff’s only track here is “gold rush,” but it honestly might be the most Antonoffian song of all time. Opening with a stunningly beautiful choir of Swifts, her tone is more conversational speeding through lyrics as the trademark slow build plays out behind her. A stuttering Bleachers-esque guitar riff explodes into an abrupt shift in key that plays out like a sunbeam breaking over the horizon.
The lyrical devastation only continues as the album goes on, Swift delivering some of the most compelling stories of her career. Abandoning overt nods to her real-life dramas and playing in a storytelling sandbox of imaginary characters was one of the best decisions she ever made. Once again, narratives connect across the album here in a way that doesn’t become evident until its conclusion. On “’tis the damn season,” successful actress Dorothea returns to her hometown and meets an old crush that’s now out of reach – he, of course, gets a song from his own perspective later. An orchestral track accompanied by Dessner’s contemplative acoustics and a distorted bass guitar, the track offers a muddled and dark alternative to the charming, lovestruck melody reminiscent of her early career Swift drops in the chorus. As far as emotional potency goes here, nothing hits like “tolerate it.” Another storied Track 5 in Swift’s career traditionally signalling ultimate vulnerability, Swift sings from the perspective of a neglected lover unsuccessfully trying to rekindle the flame with romantic gestures over a grim piano backdrop. Dropping into the chorus with a spine-tingling exasperated vocal run, hearing the difference in her delivery when reminiscing on the good old days or pleading for change in the present makes it clear just how much of powerful music is acting. Give Swift an Oscar for this one. The most evidently personal track here is “marjorie,” a tribute to Swift’s opera singer grandmother who inspired her to pursue music. Featuring a ghostly recording of Marjorie herself singing as a backup vocal, Swift defiantly keeps her memory alive and runs through the things she taught her over a driving beat.
Whereas folklore felt like every single note had something to contribute to the overall aesthetic, we begin to get a bit more of a mixed bag as the album progresses through its middle. Credit to Swift for playing around with the sound a bit more on this one and trying some more experimental ideas – most of these tracks are still easily in the upper echelon of her body of work – but it’s not the same constant state of trance. The track “happiness” is the longest here at over five minutes and was apparently finished very shortly before the album’s release. The very instrumentally minimalistic track places all the focus on Swift’s incredibly poignant lyrics about the importance of finding all the happiness you can in a situation, even if it means learning about how to be happier in the future from a horrible one. Still, musically it feels like it drags a little without many rhythmic elements except for a periodic loud, plunking guitar tone that feels like it’s too forward in the mix. “closure” is a sonic experiment that goes over better, with an unorthodox 5/4 time signature and clunking metallic percussion that makes it feel like Swift invented the new genre of industrial folk. “dorothea” is one of the most immaculately arranged tracks here, Swift putting a bit more fire in her voice as she embodies the hometown boy wondering if the famous girl from his hometown still has him in her thoughts. With some well-placed harmonies and Dessner hitting those piano keys a little harder when the moment calls for it, Swift once again sells a story like no other. “ivy” is another country-tinged firestarter with a chorus begging for a huge singalong that once again tells a story of infidelity with the fantastic metaphor of someone else growing on Swift’s character like the titular creeping plant. Despite the loudly mixed percussion that feels slightly out of place on such a melancholy project, “long story short” is an uptempo party that grows on you like no other as Swift gets a little hilariously self-aware and sarcastic about her drama-filled past, putting it behind her for good.
While the only feature on folklore was an incredible duet with Bon Iver, here Swift has elected to bring a couple more collaborators on board to legitimize her forays into this sound even more – and seemingly have a lot of fun in the process. In a welcome breather from all the Swiftian melodramatics and misery going on here, her close friends the HAIM sisters appear on the country-pop track “no body, no crime,” where Swift essentially crafts her own vengeful husband-murder narrative like so many legends before her. Unfortunately for bassist Este Haim, her death is what sets Swift in motion to dispose of the fiend. Opening with police sirens and country harmonica, Swift’s delivery is delightfully devious as she dedicatedly tells the story, offering a final lyrical flip when the murder being investigated turns from the husband’s to Swift’s own and dropping her voice down to a chilling whisper. “coney island” feels like a spiritual successor to “exile,” but this time The National frontman Matt Berninger stands in as the deep-voiced counterpart. The raw guitars and distinctly melancholy vibe of The National is at its most evident here, creating a fascinating melding of two musical worlds even if the hooks aren’t as ear-grabbing as usual here. The track “cowboy like me” has an uncredited feature from none other than Marcus Mumford, who provides an unusually soft but perfectly complementary backing harmony to Swift on what might be the most immediately sticky melody here – every part of the song is a hook. That descending run on “sleeve” rocked me to my core, and the guitar solo is an incredible touch to cap it all off. Finally, closing track “evermore” sees her once again team up with Bon Iver, but this time he’s back in his usual falsetto register. After a slower piano intro that sees Swift addressing seasonal depression, the tempo abruptly speeds up as Swift and Justin Vernon rapidly trade lines in an unexpected but absolutely spellbinding move before the song calms down once more.
Ultimately, folklore’s “sister album” is the best kind of bonus content we could have asked for such a short time afterwards. Now that Swift has dominated this style so well across two albums and has a greater degree of creative freedom, it’s anyone’s guess where the chameleonic superstar will go next.
Favourite Tracks: cowboy like me, tolerate it, gold rush, no body no crime, champagne problems
Least Favourite Track: willow