On Evermore, Taylor Swift embraces unhappy endings
The surprise album and sister record to 'Folklore' proves she's a master storyteller putting out her best work yet.
Photography Beth Garrabrant
2020 will forever be known as the year Taylor Swift fooled us into thinking we’d need to wait another twelve months for a new album. We should know better by now. Just five months after the release of Folklore, the cottagecore icon has delivered something to see us through what’s likely to be a cruel winter: her ninth studio album Evermore, 15 tracks that beg you to wander in the woods, gather by the fire pit and crack open a bottle of wine. After all, like all of us, she’s “been down since July”.
Taylor, queen of Easter eggs, shared the news of her new record on 10 December, which just so happens to be American poet Emily Dickinson’s date of birth and three days before Taylor’s 31st birthday (the inverse of her lucky number 13). If you, too, have turned into the Nancy Drew of all things Taylor Swift, you’ll know that Evermore seemingly pays homage to the sign-off of Dickinson’s letters to lifelong love Sue Gilbert — “forevermore”. (Not to mention the fact that she recently told EW that the inspiration for the Folklore album art was “a pioneer woman sleepwalking at night” in 1830 — the year Dickinson was born.) Coincidence? We think not.
Tay-Tay also slyly shared an Instagram story of herself in a red dress and plaid coat last month, with the caption “tis the season” along with a post where she wrote: “Not a lot going on here at the moment,” with the black-and-white Folklore aesthetic. Fans largely assumed that was a reference to re-recording her albums, but no, she was telling us that the Folklore era was not over yet. Is your brain combusting yet? It should be.
On Evermore, Taylor holds on tightly to the sonic momentum of Folklore by continuing collaborations with The National’s Aaron Dessner, Jack Antonoff, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and William Bowery (aka her boyfriend Joe Alwyn). This time, though, she’s also assisted by indie rock trio Haim, The National’s Matt Berninger and Mumford & Sons bandleader Marcus Mumford.
Much like Folklore, Evermore is filled with scintillating melodies, audacious storytelling and Taylor’s unwavering vulnerability, while songs are flanked with hushed harmonies and plucked strings. The record also continues the cottagecore moodboard that her fans have been enamored with in recent times, complete with a smattering of cozy references: flannels, candles, blankets, trees, amber skies and an autumn chill. If Folklore was a fall album, Evermore is without a doubt a winter one.
“I’ve never done this before,” Taylor said in a statement. “In the past I’ve always treated albums as one-off eras and moved onto planning the next one as soon as the album was released. There was something with Folklore that was different. In making it, I felt less like I was departing and more like I was returning.” And it makes a lot of sense for Taylor to release a companion record to the one that has been dubbed her best album by so many critics, especially considering she’s likely to be in a similar headspace to that of early 2020. The pandemic has forced the world to get comfortable with discomfort. For one of the biggest artists in the world, that has meant shifting from selling out stadium shows to sitting alone at her piano — likely surrounded by candles and an open book of Dickinson’s poetry, letting her wounds open wide.
Swift is far from done taking risks when it comes to songwriting and storytelling. She revels in her imagination on Evermore, taking cues from the enthralling Betty-James-Inez love triangle on Folklore and creating an array of intersecting tales. With “Dorothea”, she waxes poetic about a woman who left her hometown in Mississippi for her Hollywood dreams, reflecting on her holiday homecoming and the comfort of an old flame in “‘Tis the Damn Season”. Anyone who has ever seen a Lifetime Christmas movie or rekindled a romance in their hometown on a break from reality will see themselves in her story: “You could call me ‘babe’ for the weekend/ ‘Tis the damn season.”
Like Folklore, Evermore strays largely from pop, mainly flirting with country and folk (looks like Taylor appreciated all of the praise for “Betty”). With a series of unhappily ever-after tales, Evermore parallels the theme of “White Horse”, a sparse song from her second studio album Fearless, which stripped away the idea that fairytale endings could exist. Much of the new record sees Swift dissecting and disavowing the idea of the “happy ending”.
You can tell Taylor gets a particular thrill out of the more scandalous tales (she did, after all, give us Reputation) of infidelity and murder. “No Body, No Crime” — a clever, harmonica-tinged country murder ballad featuring Haim — that recalls “Goodbye Earl” by The Chicks and touts bassist Este as its protagonist. On “Tolerate It”, she details the trouble between an obedient housewife and her cheating spouse, which leads to the former’s ultimate ambivalence about the situation. “Ivy” recalls the stolen glances of Folklore’s “Illicit Affairs'' and the sweeping chamber-folk of The Staves as Taylor laments another affair turned vengeful. She’s as overdramatic as ever as she declares, “I’d live and die for moments that we stole/ On begged and borrowed time.” In the pedal steel-fueled slow dance “Cowboy Like Me”, she cloaks a love story of two young con artists scamming the rich, and with the help of Marcus Mumford, channels the innate melancholy of The Civil Wars.
“Champagne Problems” may well be the imaginary continuation of Taylor’s high school romance from “Tim McGraw” into college. The song echoes the whistling opening chords of Lover’s “Cornelia Street” and details college sweethearts on two different pages: one about to end their relationship and one about to propose. The hymnal “Happiness” is the aftermath of a breakup, and, as the seventh track on the record, has allusions to Folklore’s “Seven” — only this time she’s “above the trees” and not “in” them, leaving a relationship after seven long years.
On an album full of characters and tales, opener “Willow” recalls Lover’s inaugural track “Cruel Summer” by hinting at the uncertainty at the start of her current relationship: “I’m begging for you to take my hand/ Wreck my plan/ That’s my man.” But any doubt fails to stop her from having a sense of humor about it all — or, indeed, curb her determination: “I come back stronger than a 90s trend.” A cinematic anthem brews in “Coney Island” as Taylor and The National’s Matt Berninger craft a shared apology for not putting a relationship first. The nostalgia for simpler times recalls “August”, where once again, Taylor is thinking about the mall: “Cause we were like the mall before the Internet/ It was the one place to be.”
The rare synth-pop track on Evermore, “Long Story Short”, finds Taylor content in her current relationship: “When I dropped my sword/ I threw it in the bushes and knocked on your door/ And we live in peace/ But if someone comes at us/ This time I’m ready.” She follows up “Epiphany”, a tribute to her grandfather on Folklore, with “Marjorie”, which pays homage to her late grandmother Marjorie Finlay, an opera singer who inspired Swift to pursue music. Marjorie herself is also an unexpected collaborator on Evermore, with her whispering vocals floating in the backdrop of the song. The title track and album closer sees Taylor team up with Justin Vernon’s swirling falsetto again, on a ballad that follows up Folklore’s gut-punch “Exile” and ruminates on the missteps of a relationship, the subsequent depression and the belief that the pain won’t last forever.
With Evermore — like Folklore — Taylor is at her most comfortable and confident, touting a no-frills approach that finds the singer-songwriter putting out her best work yet. It’s not that she hasn’t enjoyed the flourishes of her radio-friendly pop hits, but she’s found herself relishing in the intimacy of reimagining other people’s lives. Taylor also knows that the holiday season is ripe with loneliness. She’s feeling it, we’re all feeling it. Evermore is a gift to those of us who found ourselves wrapped in the warm blanket of Folklore, and a reminder that her music has been as much of a balm for her in 2020, as it has for us.