Well, I can say I surely didn't intend on writing another Taylor Swift album review this year. In the strangest twist of 2020 yet, Taylor Swift sent me spiraling two Thursdays ago when I awoke to a notification that she'd be releasing her ninth studio album completely out of nowhere. A companion/B-Side/little sister to her esteemed folklore from just this past July, evermore serves as a continuation of introspective quaran-tunes that play to her strengths perhaps better than any of her previous records.
As is tradition around here, I'll be going track-by-track to give you my analysis, opinions, and daydreams. As a whole, this album feels like a Christmas present someone strategically hid deep under the tree's thickest branches: A delicious little bonus that almost feels too good to be true, something shiny and new amidst freshly tattered wrapping paper and discarded bows. With folklore sitting atop Rolling Stone's Best of 2020 list and racking up an impressive number of Grammy noms, the announcement of a ninth album amidst all the accolades perhaps proves that Taylor both can't sit still and isn't doing this for clout.
Start us off strong with all the makings of a quintessential Taylor Swift song, which is to say there are immediate metaphors, a pithy hook, and familiar-enough instrumentation. To use Taylor's own words: "'willow' is about intrigue, desire, and the complexity that goes into wanting someone. I think it sounds like casting a spell to make somebody fall in love with you." With this in mind, there is something notably enchanting about this one; lots of visuals that feel straight out of a spell book. Harsh waters, runaway trains, stoic-seeming trees, and mythical imagery comes up a lot in this album, and this first track serves almost as world-building in that way. You're dropped into the middle of it with the opening lyric: "I'm like the water when your ship rolled into that night/Rough on the surface, but you cut through like a knife."
What makes this album a perfect accompaniment for folklore is they both feel holistic in ways her other records have not. While per other albums have been sonically cohesive or tell different parts of the same story, Taylor has done something interesting with these two most recent albums. They almost feel like the musical equivalent of a literary magazine, where each track is its own variation on a common theme. With folklore, each individual song told its own vivid story that could take place any time, anywhere, as the album's title would suggest. With evermore, each song seems to be offering its own take on the concept of the ambiguity of feelings and circumstances that are enduring and perpetual. "Willow" puts us in the trance-like state of wanting someone, a feeling that can feel most permanent when you're in the thick of it. If you're sitting in your room thinking about someone particular on day #5,976,124 of this year, she cooked up the perfect song for you.
Back when Taylor was best known for her scathing revenge radio smashes, critics would joke about how her career was doomed should she ever settle down and fall happily in love. They said "What are you gonna write about?", as if she was unable to imagine a life beyond her own and a narrative other than what she's feeling in the moment. "Champagne problems" proves she's capable of (and maybe best at) constructing a fictitious world with its own complete story arc all in under four minutes. And, here's the kicker: Her boyfriend, of all people, co-wrote this heartbreak song.
When listening to this one for the first time, I was met with a warm, simple piano I had heard most recently on Taylor's "New Year's Day," the surprisingly soft ballad that rounds out her otherwise angry reputation. This is the type of piano that sounds like it should be played after Christmas dinner, when someone snuck away to the formal room and starts playing what they remember from middle school lessons until they're joined with company to sit at the bench next to them. This lead to the incorrect conclusion that I was in for a sweet song about how in love she is...and then next thing I knew I was weeping alone in my bedroom.
"Champagne problems" tells the story of a man who proposes to a woman who says "no," for seemingly no good reason. Told from her perspective, the woman laments "Sometimes you just don't know the answer, 'til someone's on their knees and asks you."
It's the hardest story to hear, I think: The story of two people who have no neat and tidy reason to not end up together, but they just don't. We seek out movies where he cheats, or she falls for someone else, or they just can't stop fighting, because we want the story with which we can easily reckon, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. But sometimes she's just not ready or can't get out of her own way; call it "champagne problems."
This song makes me think of Laurie and Jo in Little Women, and as I listen to Taylor sing "She would've made such a lovely bride/What a shame she's fucked in the head, they said/But you'll find the real thing instead/She'll patch up your tapestry that I shred," I cry thinking about that scene where Timothée Chalamet is chasing a wild Saoirse Ronan through the countryside begging her to love him.
You can tell someone's really in love when they believe everyone else on planet Earth wants to be with their significant other. It's equal parts endearing and delusional, and a sentiment Taylor seems to revisit fairly regularly as of late, all about her now longterm boyfriend Joe Alwyn. It started a few years ago with the song "Gorgeous," which is quite literally about how gorgeous she finds him. Then we got the lyric in the title track from Lover: "I'm highly suspicious that everyone who sees you wants you." Like, don't get me wrong, he's perfectly handsome, but kind of in that Ken doll way that really only does it for you if you have a good relationship with your father and had perfect attendance in school.
I'm sorry, I don't mean to mock what is otherwise a very sweet song laden with domesticated details. It seems with every subsequent year and album release, Taylor shakes off (pun intended?) a little bit of the residual trauma that caused her to go into hiding for years. While she still seldom gives interviews or shares parts of her life that haven't been premeditated, the lyrical content of her songs continue to ever-so-slightly open the door to her hopes and fears and neuroses.
"Gold rush," to me anyway, is an ode to loving someone who you yearn to know inside and out, and fearing that others may be intrigued by their shiny exterior and threaten the day-to-day intimacy only you have. Taylor has made beauty out of sitting in the discomfort of her own jealousy, reminding us of her and Joe's bond: "I see me padding across your wooden floors/With my Eagles t-shirt hanging from the door/At dinner parties, I call you out on your contrarian shit/And the coastal town we wandered 'round had never seen a love as pure as it."
"'tis the damn season"
My friend Kasey tweeted "Could you imagine the chaos if 'tis the damn season was released during a year when people actually were at their parents' house for the holidays??? a MESS" and honestly...I couldn't agree more. This is the type of song that will have you wistfully thinking about some dude who was halfway nice to you in the twelfth grade and wondering if you missed out on something. You didn't, if you were wondering, but Taylor Swift really is out here making us all question every relationship or brief encounter with a man we've ever had.
This song is told from the perspective of a woman who is back home for the holidays and engages in a weekend of nostalgic romance with her high school sweetheart. I'd like to posit that this song is the other side of "dorothea," a song later on in the track list that we'll get to soon. That would make "'tis the damn season" a song from Dorothea's perspective. It makes sense, because this song is told from the point-of-view of a woman who moved to LA and surrounds herself with "so-called friends who'd write books about me if I ever make it."
"'Tis the damn season" feels like a song you'd find on a soured Hallmark movie soundtrack, or better yet a dark comedy that attempts to satirize the former. With lyrics like "The holidays linger like bad perfume/You can run but only so far" and "Sleeping half the day/Just for old times' sake," you can't help but fully sink into the angst and spite of regression.
In a life after 'Rona I think this song would be best enjoyed while you text someone who may or may not remember your name while you dizzily spill into an Uber the day before Thanksgiving. It goes well with rail drinks, cigarette smoke, and promises to reconnect with your classmates before you return to your real life. I only live thirty minutes and eight exits from my hometown, but I fully plan on one day blaring this song as I drive down the highway to visit my parents for Christmas and check over my shoulder as I stop at the once-familiar grocery store to grab the dinner rolls my mom forgot she needed.
Here's a little secret for those not completely immersed in the Taylor Swift universe: Track five on her albums is always the most vulnerable gut-punch on the entire LP. So gear up, everyone, because holy shit she's really laid it on thick this time!
"Tolerate it" is the classic story of a broken relationship between one person who would give the world for the other, and another person who is far too aloof to care. Told from the perspective of the first type of person, this is the type of song that really leads you to believe being in the wrong type of love is a fate worse than death. To try your hardest to impress your significant other in the hopes that they'll notice you exist at all. And, saddest of all, to know that you deserve better and should call it quits, but you just can't seem to leave.
Track fives often feature Taylor's most vivid imagery, and this one is no exception. For example, in "Dear John"--one of her most vulnerable, heart-wrenching tracks--she writes, "You paint me a blue sky, then go back and turn it to rain/And I lived in your chess game, but you changed the rules every day." Whether or not this is intentional, similar tortured and defeated lyrics take the forefront of the chorus in "tolerate it": "You're so much older and wiser and I/Wait by the door like I'm just a kid, use my best colors for your portrait...I know my love should be celebrated/But you tolerate it."
The personal shot to my heart in this song takes place right after the bridge, when the narrator seems to drum up the courage to leave: "You assume I'm fine, but what would you do if I/Break free and leave us in ruins/Took this dagger in me and removed it/Gain the weight of you then lose it/Believe me I could do it," only to then end up repeating the first lines of the song as it fades to a close. She so poignantly paints the cycle of abuse here: Periods of gaining courage and swearing to escape, then backsliding and feeling like you're right back where you started. Musically, the instrumentation follows suit with a swelling of synths and a drum machine that build and build, only to drop off right back to the beginning with a singular piano backing Taylor's vocals.
"no body no crime"
^actual footage of me listening to this song.
So if I wasn't already convinced that Taylor Swift was reading my innermost thoughts somehow, I'm 100% certain of it now. There's no other logical way to explain the fact that she wrote a country song about murdering a cheating man; that's one of my absolute favorite sub-genres of music!
In all seriousness, I was hooked onto this one the second I heard the opening banjo riff that sounds straight out of "Should've Said No," the cheating anthem she wrote as a literal teenager and put on her debut record. If you didn't know, in addition to casually dropping two surprise full-length albums this year, Taylor is also in the process of re-recording her entire discography to gain at least some ownership of her masters, and I can't help but think listening back to her old sound influenced the creation of this song a little bit.
This is a bona fide country anthem, one I haven't heard the likes of since I was fervently listening to the (Dixie) Chicks as a little girl. While I have largely distanced myself from the contemporary country genre as a whole, I do still marvel at the old-school storytelling that occurs in a good country song. "No body, no crime" is an example of when it's done well, with a clear narrative beginning, middle, and end.
HAIM, a sister band I happen to also love, features on this track, providing harmony on the choruses. I do feel slightly let down by their minuscule appearance on this song, similarly to how I felt when The Chicks were barely featured on "Soon You'll Get Better" from her 2019 album Lover. That's just me being biased because I love both of those groups and when women collaborate on music. I'm not knocking off any points for this, but the feminist in me just wanted to mention it. But back to the song itself:
In just over three and a half minutes, we get the factual skeleton of the story: A woman named Este thinks her husband is cheating, Este ends up going missing, and then Este's husband ends up dead. From the specific details Taylor gives us in the verses, it's easy enough for the listener to fill in the nuances, and we can conclude that Este was killed by her husband after confronting him about his infidelity, and then Este's friend (the narrator of the song) seeks vengeance by murdering him and framing his mistress for the deed. Y'know, just the usual wholesome Taylor Swift song about fairytales and romance, right?
What makes this song so crafty is a technique I love from traditional country songwriting: A chorus that lyrically doesn't change, but given the context of the verse that precedes it, morphs into a different meaning each time. The chorus itself is very simple, more or less just the phrase "I think he did it, but I just can't prove it" repeated over and over again, followed by the phrase: "I ain't letting up until the day I die."
The first time we hear it, it's in regards to cheating: "I think he did it but I just can't prove it...no body, no crime, but I ain't letting up until the day I die."
Then when Este goes missing without a trace: "I think he did it but I just can't prove it...no body, no crime, but I ain't letting up until the day I die."
And then finally, after the cheating husband gets his just deserts, the narrator of the song has flipped the chorus on its head a little bit and sings "She (the mistress) thinks I did it, but she just can't prove it," and circles around the phrase "No body, no crime." Then finally, in the most delicious payoff in the very last second of the song, she whispers, "I wasn't letting up until the day he...died," like it's our collective little secret. I've come to the conclusion that nothing in a Taylor Swift song happens accidentally, so I'm pretty positive she wrote it this way on purpose. This track is equal parts masterful storytelling and proof that woman watches far too many crime shows.
Certainly a song about literal murder isn't a happy one, but thank God we had at least somewhat of a fun song placed in-between tracks five and seven to provide some levity, because "happiness" is far from the song you think it's going to be based on title alone.
In an interview Taylor did for Apple Music, she explains: "I was trying to channel...my friends who have gotten out of very, very long, impactful, life-altering relationships, and saying 'How do I pack this up? How do I put this in a box and put it in my car and drive away?'"
"Happiness" tells the sad story of what happens after one of these long, impactful, life-altering relationships draws to a close, to the tune of the equal parts hopeful and tragic hook: "There'll be happiness after you, but there was happiness because of you." It's one of those songs we all hope we'll never have to relate to, but deep down know we will one day cry alongside. Because, after all, "No one teaches you what to do when a good man hurts you/And you know you hurt him, too."
The one bright spot in this song is that at its core it's a hopeful one. It's hard to discern and requires some masterful digging around lyrics like "My eyes leak acid rain on the pillow where you used to lay your head," but ultimately the song ends on the resolute self-awareness that though it may seem presently impossible, there is a future in which all will be forgiven and even the deepest wounds will heal. And sometimes it seems so far-fetched that you can only refer to that better version of yourself as an entirely different person, which is what Taylor does in this song: "All you want from me now is the green light of forgiveness/You haven't met the new me yet, and think she'll give you that."
Here's that aforementioned sister track to "'tis the damn season," at least if you're asking me how I interpret it...which ultimately is the point of this entire thing. If you're willing to board this train with me, I'd like to suggest that this song is told from the perspective of the old high school flame being sung to in track four. While "'tis the damn season" is hardened and somewhat hurtful, "dorothea" is sweet and sincere. Between the two, we get to imagine the opposite outlooks of a person who felt the need to escape their hometown, and another who was perfectly happy to stay behind.
There's a very bright, gung-ho Americana element to this song. Musically, it's the literal bright, jaunty piano and acoustic guitar strumming, and lyrically it's the sunny disposition of phrases like "It's never too late to come back to my side/The stars in your eyes shined brighter in Tupelo."
Listening to "'tis the damn season" and "dorothea" back-to-back is quite the exercise in perspective, as each song's narrator paints the same small town in entirely different colors. "Dorothea" (the song, not the character) makes ditching the prom and hanging out underneath the bleachers seem like fond memories, rather than begrudged snapshots doused in horrible cheap perfume.
Upon first listen, the lyric that immediately jumped out and grabbed me by the jugular was the casual "If you're ever tired of being known for who you know, you know you'll always know me." Leave it to Taylor Swift to take a string of words that should be so colloquial and make them beautiful.
If you didn't already know, this album is mostly sad with very few bright, happy songs to occasionally lighten the mood. This is one of the sad ones. On both this album and on folklore, Aaron Dessner plays a key role in production and songwriting, and on "coney island," his bands The National duets.
When I was in school taking creative writing classes, an exercise professors would often give us was to read the works of some of the greats and then attempt to try their techniques on for size and write passages in their style. That seems to be what Taylor did to prepare for this collaboration. The lyrics and musicality are still at their core one with the rest of her discography, but also don the introspective sadness The National does so well. If you showed any tortured indie boy the lyric, "Do you miss the rogue who coaxed you into paradise then left you there?" out of context, I guarantee they wouldn't immediately attribute them to the girl who wrote "Shake It Off." Those pop bangers certainly do have their place, but when she flexes her muscles like this, I can't help but think these are the types of songs she should have been making all along.
As a lifelong Taylor Swift fan, what I love most about this song are the allusions to heartbreak anthems of her past. I don't think this song is necessarily about any of her famous ex-boyfriends, but I do see notable parallels to images from older albums.
In "The Moment I Knew," she writes all about how heartbroken she was when Jake Gyllenhaal didn't show up to her 21st birthday party. An entire decade later: "Were you standing in the hallway, with a big cake/Happy Birthday."
In "Dear John," she details the abuse John Mayer made her endure as a teenager. The "coney island" lyric "Did I paint your bluest skies the darkest grey?" is too coincidental to not be directly in response to the "Dear John" line "You paint me a blue sky, then go back and turn it to rain."
In "Out Of The Woods," she lets us in on the story of how her and Harry Styles got in a pretty bad snowmobiling accident that landed them both in the hospital. Years later, we get the lyric: "And when I got into the accident/The sight that flashed before me was your face."
And finally (at least the last of the parallels I could find myself), Taylor reflects "But when I walked up to the podium, I think that I forgot to say your name," which I can't help but think is a reference to when she won Album Of The Year at the Grammys right around the demise of her relationship with Calvin Harris.
This is one of those tracks that can be a standalone sad song if you're a casual listener or a walk down memory lane for the unhinged day one Taylor Swift fans like me. I would imagine this one is another product of her revisiting old songs and bringing back techniques and references we haven't seen in a while.
As Taylor Swift grows up, her views on right and wrong become more muddy and true to life. When I detailed folklore back in July, I said something similar about the song "illicit affairs": "There is power in giving a voice to the supposed villain and reminding ourselves that humans are complex and messy." Is it the biggest douchebag move of all to quote yourself in an album review? Probably, but this is a continuation of that same thought.
"Ivy" is all about an unhappily married woman who finds herself entangled in an extramarital affair and "grieving for the living." And amidst the acknowledgement that what she's doing is wrong, there is lust, regret, fear, and defeat.
Because, honestly, what do you do if you make a mistake and let someone make a lasting impression upon you? It's not supposed to happen, but vines aren't supposed to take hold and snake up the cold, impenetrable walls of an old stone cottage. Sometimes nature has an inexplicable way of taking course.
This is one of the most "folklorian" of the songs on this album from an imagery standpoint, using fire, clover blooms, crescent moons, and, well...ivy...as storytelling devices. It's one of my favorites, probably because it's one that features Jack Antonoff as a co-writer; I think I've made it very clear in reviews past that he's my favorite of her collaborators. And if it wasn't clear enough, here's the reminder!
"cowboy like me"
This is the type of song I'd expect the house band to be playing just before last call in a smoky bar. "Cowboy like me" is the unlikely love story of two outlaws who lie, cheat, and steal enough hearts to get by. When they meet they're fully prepared to pull out their best tricks to feign romance through a quick fling, then realize they both accidentally fell into the real thing.
Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons) offers backing vocal on this song, softly crooning alongside Taylor: "You had some tricks up your sleeve/Takes one to know one/You're a cowboy like me/Perched in the dark, telling all the rich folks anything they wanna hear/Like it could be love, I would be the way forward, only if they pay for it."
I think the Bonnie and Clyde love story is a little played out at this point, but this is a slower re-imagination of the old tale with a little more grit and a lot more soul. The lyric "The skeletons in both our closets plotted hard to fuck this up" is just one example of how Taylor plays with common turns of phrase in her writing; lots of adages that best belong in saloons, old Western films, and the bridge of this song.
"long story short"
Oh thank God, I needed at least one happy love song in order to have the full Taylor Swift album experience. "Long story short," (haha) this is one of my absolute favorites on the record, even if it is more or less a retelling of the story she's been toting for a few years now.
Ever since reputation, the first album to come out after the whole Kimye snakegate situation, we've admittedly gotten a lot of songs that talk about how Taylor was hurt and hardened by the things that happened to her, but once she opened herself back up to love she became happier than she'd ever been. The songs "Delicate", "King Of My Heart", "Call It What You Want", and most of her album Lover all operate from this core sentiment. I think this would probably be a tired narrative if folklore and evermore were largely autobiographical in nature, but because the most recent 30-something songs she's put out have been mostly about fictitious people and scenarios, it's surprisingly nice to have a song on this album that feels personal and familiar.
What's different about this song, though, is the sense of forward motion. We're not dwelling in the past and the times she may have felt unlovable; she puts it simply: "Long story short, it was a bad time." Point blank period.
As she settles into her third decade of life, it's calming to see she's arrived to a place of love and content. Better yet, she's done so while proving she hasn't run out of things to write about. There was a time when people would joke about how Taylor Swift's career would be over once she "met The One," but she's proven she can find longterm companionship and somehow just get better and better. To put it as only she can: "Past me, I wanna tell you not to get lost in these petty things/Your nemeses will defeat themselves before you get the chance to swing/And he's passing by, rare as the glimmer of a comet in the sky/And he feels like home, if he shoe fits walk in it everywhere you go."
Well that was a nice little moment of reprieve, but now we're right back to crying! This song is written about Taylor's maternal grandmother, Marjorie Finlay. As Taylor says in the aforementioned Apple Music interview: "One of the hardest forms of regret to work through is the regret of being so young when you lost someone that you didn't have the perspective to learn and appreciate who they were, fully."
We learn from this interview that Marjorie died when Taylor was thirteen, right on the precipice of "making it." As a method of equal parts storytelling and self-soothing, this song posits that our loved ones who leave us too soon must be watching and listening alongside us. Whether or not that's true is irrelevant, because it's what feels most comforting.
To just fully throw the waterworks into overdrive, Taylor had the bright idea to actually include Marjorie's voice on this track. She's always done out-of-the-box things like this,(like how the bass drum on "Wildest Dreams" is her literal heartbeat) but somehow she still manages to awe me. After a thoughtfully constructed bridge, she gives us the line "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were singing to me now," introducing a chilling backing vocal recovered from an old tape of Marjorie singing opera in a former life.
If there were ever a song to remind me how lucky I am to have a set of healthy grandparents, this is the one. Additionally, if there were ever a song to make you believe in the afterlife, this is the one for that, too. Or at least you hope that's the case, because you finish this song and hope Marjorie somehow was able to hear it.
I develop more of a like for this song as the days go by. Originally I found the caustic clanging drum kit at the beginning of the track difficult to listen to, impeding my ears from the lyrics, but they fade away to reveal a measured piano progression and the reality that closure is more often than not a totally made up thing.
In movies we always get that sought-after apology. We get the conflict resolution and we get the guy apologizing in the pouring rain to seal shut all our wounds. In real life, we usually just have that adage about time to get us through. The real version is much messier and takes way longer, but more worthwhile in the long run. There's nothing more satisfying than no longer needing or even desiring an apology from someone and earnestly saying "It cut deep to know ya/I don't need your closure."
I was going to be subtle about what I like about this song, but fuck it. To channel my inner Taylor Swift: This song came at a very good time for me.
When I was in high school I had a friend who was horrifically mean to me, and as an adult I can turn around and point out his actions as gaslighting. Without going into unnecessary detail, it colored the tail end of my high school experience in a dark depression. I was razor-close to not attending the prom and side-stepped every other "senior activity" I could manage, I saw a therapist weekly, and while my peers were crying after graduation because they were going to miss each other, I was crying out of relief that I'd never have to go back.
I was convinced it was going to hurt forever and that I would never be able to wholly trust anyone again due to the abuse of one or two people, but after a while, I no longer cared. Time really is an honest bitch; she does exactly what she says she's going to. One day a few years after the fact, my mom asked me what those people were up to, and I genuinely had no clue, and better yet didn't care. I could run into one of them in public and not immediately be triggered into a panic attack. Time had created for me its own closure devoid of any apology.
Then this year, because 2020 is so beyond bizarre, the aforementioned guy who starred in my waking nightmares as a seventeen-year-old reached out on Instagram and apologized and said he "regretted the fallout." He asked if we could maybe grab coffee and re-connect. I cannot tell you how high and mighty it felt to earnestly say, "Thanks for the offer, high school was so long ago, who cares? We don't need to get back into it."
It's the less ladylike story that is told in the song "closure," but it's one that I have come to identify with. We're taught as children to always take the high road and give people the benefit of the doubt, but as I'm adult I'm learning sometimes it's okay to take a different road entirely and give certain people nothing at all. I think anyone who feels any sort of residual trauma from a specific person can relate; if that person ever were to reach out, it seems more self-serving than anything else. What would actually be the best apology of all would be if they were to just continue keeping their distance. Taylor says it best: "It's fake and it's oh so unnecessary."
So, if the person I referenced above is reading this: "Yes I got your letter, yes I'm doing better."
Fun fact! This is the second song Bon Iver has sung on with Taylor, and they've still never met! What a weird existence this year has shaped up to be.
Taylor says she wrote this song in the days and weeks leading up to the presidential election, maintaining hope but preparing for the worst. Knowing that, the lyrics and tone of this song make a lot of sense. "Evermore" sounds almost unsure, like each lyric and each piano chord is being cautiously approached in real time. A song that still wants to be optimistic after being battered by all the trials and tribulations of being a human alive in the year 2020.
A song that paints the picture of a barefoot traipse through the wintry forest to eventually reach the warm reprieve of a cabin and establish a strange feeling of hope feels like a microcosm of both everyone's collective reality and the two albums Taylor has given us this year. We're all just trying to take it day-by-day; sometimes driving to get a cup of coffee and singing along to this album is the closest we get to joy.