Taylor Swift’s ‘Evermore’ Is as Masterful and Sad as You Hoped and Needed
The surprise follow-up to “folklore” takes the melancholy and emotional ennui of Swift’s first pandemic album and enriches it even more—just when we needed to feel it the most.
For much of the past year, a meme that may or may not be true circulated pointing out that William Shakespeare wrote his masterpiece King Lear during a pandemic, essentially asking, So what are you going to do?
It was probably intended to inspire and motivate, but in many ways really just shamed people. Whatever the interpretation, it seems that Taylor Swift saw that meme, said “Billy S., hold my mug of mulled cider,” put on her closest turtleneck chunky sweater, and then penned and recorded evermore, her second glorious pandemic masterpiece released within five months.
According to Swift herself, it’s a “sister album” to folklore, the triumph of coziness and dread that held a musical mirror up to our own pandemic emotional ennui. If folklore was like an introspective constitutional stroll on a crisp fall day, then evermore is its more frigid December counterpart.
While folklore managed to find the melancholy romance in our depression and self-pity, evermore has harnessed all that static angst felt from yet more months of a pandemic into scattered extremes. It’s even chillier, sometimes angrier, sometimes defiant, and other times even upbeat.
It’s not possible, nor fair, to rank the two albums against each other. What proud parent could possibly pick a favorite child? The two collections are distinct, but absolutely connected.
After folklore won Swift the best reviews of her career and six Grammy nominations—she could break her own record and become the first woman to win Album of the Year three times, joining Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, and Paul Simon as the only performers to do so—evermore proves this latest reinvention in Swift’s much-dissected career to be the shrewdest yet.
Swift has teamed again with her folklore collaborators Aaron Dessner, Jack Antonoff, and Justin Vernon, who is also the frontman of Bon Iver, stripping back the big sounds and superstar swagger tumbling under the circus tent of her eclectic music career to an acoustic-adjacent simplicity.
These are singer-songwriters’ albums, in the purest way that an easily distracted 2020 culture would allow. The moody sound has been labeled Swift’s retreat into the “indie” space. I’ve seen it called “goth-folk,” folk-pop,” and, in as loving a way as possible, “twee.”
Evermore launches with two tracks—“willow” and “champagne problems”—that continue folklore’s achievement as the best stool-in-a-coffee-shop set you’d ever attend. Like their “exile” collaboration on folklore, the “evermore” closer featuring Bon Iver is just so achingly beautiful.
But before it drifts too dangerously towards seeming like a collection of songs that ended up in the original folklore recycling bin, Swift begins experimenting within that indie space in ways far more adventurous than in her previous outing.
The twangs of countrified revenge strutting throughout “no body, no crime,” which features the HAIM sisters, carry understated echoes of a previous Carrie Underwood or Shania Twain monster hit. Hints of bluegrass and honky-tonk make their way into the bouncing storyteller ballad “Dorothea.”
There are haunting atmospherics in tracks like “gold rush” and “closure,” the latter with the assist of the Bon Iver vocal modifier, that bring the dreamlike lilt down to more of a nightmarescape. Both songs are still delicate but tinged with a darkness that echoes the maturity asserted through both sister albums. If we’ve always marveled at how skilled Swift is at distilling grand, sweeping feelings into a relatable, universal simplicity, the tracks on evermore carry a more reasoned emotional complexity.
Some experiments seem like they shouldn’t work. The National’s Matt Berninger's dumptruck-driving-over-gravel growl of a voice clashes with Swift’s thin, soft singing on their duet “Coney Island.” But as the song moves along, what should be grating ends up producing something richer than expected.
There’s a telling quote from Swift’s recent Rolling Stone cover story, in which she and Paul McCartney are in conversation. She says to him at the start of the discussion, “I think it’s important to note that if this year had gone the way that we thought it was going to go, you and I would have played Glastonbury this year, and instead, you and I both made albums in isolation.”
For years, Swift was on a trajectory up a curve on which everything seemed to get bigger and flashier. She was alternately acting the part of the world’s biggest music star and acting out. Every song and music video seemed like a carefully orchestrated stunt. As she began experimenting, it was as if she was on a shopping spree for every bell and whistle each genre offered. Sometimes it yielded an ostentatious cacophony. Other times, it was masterful and thrilling.
What’s so impressive about folklore and, now, evermore is how controlled and curated her musical experimentation is, as if she was both eager to explore her identity in ways she never had before, but also was more certain than ever about who she is.
That there is something extremely visual about the feeling elicited by these albums has become somewhat of a meme. It’s “sweater weather” as music, the soundtrack to a fashion show for a cardigan line held at an apple-picking orchard. (To be less cutesy about it, you could call them weighted security blankets to stave off pandemic-induced emotional breakdowns.)
Author and entertainment journalist Myles Tanzer joked on Twitter, “If i had a culture writing substack, I would write ~2000 words about how taylor swift's embrace of the ‘going upstate’ aesthetic is one of the most savvy moves of her career.”
As the urban millennial fanbase of Swift—the group that manages to both embrace her ironically and with extreme earnestness in equal measure—transform their brands from trendy to cottagecore, motivated by cities they used to frolic in being forced to finally go to sleep, Swift’s music quieted down and followed them.
And as that group ages and discovers the more nuanced truths about life and experience, Swift is channeling those same truths in her songs.
She’s always, for example, captured the innocent bliss of romance and the kiss-off armor required to weather heartbreak. But evermore captures the sadness that is inextricable from being in love. It’s there when you’re lonely and yearning, it’s there when you’re supposed to be happy with your soulmate, and it’s there when you’re breaking up, whether it’s angry, whether it’s amicable, whether you’re vindicated, or whether you’re in mourning.
To that end, both “ivy” and “tolerate it” are marvels of bittersweet love songwriting. And it’s the songwriting that takes center stage here.
Once again, evermore is a storyteller album. On several tracks, Swift scripts fictional narratives and characters, telling their stories as metaphors for our own experiences—and maybe hers, too, as countless blogs will parse for hints at her celebrity life and relationships.
In a tweet explaining why she followed up folklore so quickly, and why she departed from her usual path of moving onto a new era and sound at the conclusion of each album, she wrote, “I loved the escapism I found in these imaginary/not imaginary tales. So I just kept writing them.”
With folklore and evermore, we get Taylor Swift, the bard—to echo the William Shakespeare comparison from the top of this piece. “Tis the season,” “dorothea,” “tolerate it,” “cowboy like me,” and “no body, no crime” add to the cast of characters that, with folklore, contribute to something of a Taylor Swift mythology universe.
She briefly introduces them in the letter to fans she tweeted announcing evermore:
“The one about two young con artists who fall in love while hanging out at fancy resorts trying to score rich romantic beneficiaries. The one where longtime college sweethearts had very different plans for the same night, one to end it and one who brought a ring. Dorothea, the girl who left her small town to chase Hollywood dreams—and what happens when she comes back for the holidays and rediscovers an old flame. The ‘unhappily ever after’ anthology of marriages gone bad that includes infidelity, ambivalent toleration, and even murder.”
The track “marjorie” is about her late grandmother, a song about pain, healing, and a beautiful life that is impossible not to feel deeply while listening.
What’s interesting about all these tracks, both on this and on folklore, is that Swift never caught the flack I predicted from those who might have been bored by an album that never really flares off the same, quiet flatline vibe. The deluxe edition of evermore contributes 17 more tracks on that same somber wavelength, a very long departure for fans of an artist whose energetic songs they’re typically used to screaming along to during car rides and on dance floors.
But that’s what these projects crystallize: the need for a departure at this particular moment. If you’re Swift, from the sound and direction you were moving in. For us, from just about everything in life that is weighing us down. These two albums allow us to feel that. No matter how quiet or how loud, that is always when Swift is at her best.