[Republic; 2020]

On folklore: the long pond studio sessions, the Disney+ documentary film where Taylor Swift performs the songs from her surprise 2020 album folklore, as well as giving some background to its creation, she talks about how she “[put] out an album in the worst time you could put one out.” Turns out she was wrong. folklore is “a product of isolation” (as Swift herself puts it) and it turned out to be a perfect product for isolation too. Her venture into the indie-folk style (guided in a good part by her new best songwriting friend Aaron Dessner as well as familiars Jack Antonoff and William Bowery) was almost perfectly timed; the cosy, stripped-down songs and ornate, pristine arrangements were ideally suited for listeners across the world still hunkered down in isolation and lockdown. folklore arrived as a surprise, like a friend suddenly appearing at your door and (safely) giving you a long hug with a warm sweater – even though it was July.

Less than five months after folklore was released, Swift pulled the same surprise on us again, announcing evermore mere hours before its release. Described as a “sister record” to its predecessor as Swift “wander[s] deeper” into the “folklorian woods,” evermore is its own entity. Full of 15 new tracks, with Dessner receiving more songwriting credits this time, the album finds some new sonic territory to try out. Not to mention the increased guest list too, featuring the likes of HAIM, Dessner’s bandmates from The National, and Marcus Mumford. Like Disney’s film adaptation of Into The Woods, this forest Swift is exploring is sizable and full of A-list surprises.

What’s not a surprise is that evermore treads familiar ground as its sibling. Opening track “willow” blossoms with neat, delicate guitars; “tolerate it” sweeps by on solemn, chilly piano chords and atmospherics; and “ivy” shuffles by sweetly with a warm banjo (courtesy of returning guest Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, who also makes a vocal appearance on the hopeful and stirring title track). These tracks would all sit nicely substituted in on folklore, and here they offer that pleasing (if forgettable) fix of Swiftian indie that seems to have swept the world over. (folklore racked up over 44 million streams on the day its release – and that was just in the US.)

evermore‘s strongest cuts come from Swift doing what she does best. The aforementioned “tolerate it” lays bare a scene of an increasingly loveless marriage falling apart while “champagne problems” builds four familiar chords into a swirl of rousing emotion as an engagement party doesn’t turn out the way the proposer expects. They are vignettes of love, pain, and drama, and Swift’s attention to detail next to the considered, delicate arrangements make them worth coming back to, to live through over and over.

On “marjorie” Swift pays tribute to her late grandmother Marjorie Finlay, who died in 2003. The shimmering backdrop combined with Swift’s homely advice and regrets of not savouring more of the time they spent together makes for a magical four minutes. “What died didn’t stay dead / You’re alive, so alive,” Swift offers. “And if I didn’t know better / I’d think you were singing to me now,” she continues, before a sample of Finlay’s own operatic singing calls out in the background. It’s ghostly and affecting, and shows that Swift can write a musical eulogy that feels both relatable and personal.

Equally pleasing to hear is when Swift paints outside the lines. “happiness”, which was reportedly finished just a week or so before the album was released, occupies a moment of peaceful, relaxing calm where her perspective seems all the more considered, like she’s seeing everything from the heavens. “No one teaches you what to do / When a good man hurts you / And you know you hurt him, too,” she sings with clarity. “closure” is perhaps the most exciting offering though, as skittering drum machines and synths (one could be forgiven for thinking you’re hearing a cut from Sufjan Stevens’ latest) cast Swift in a new light. It’s a fascinating turn that lets her gritted-teeth delivery (“Don’t treat me like some situation that needs to be handled”) feel all the more genuine and scornful.

As many bright moments as evermore has though, the album is weighed down heavily by tracks that don’t conjure the magic they aim to, even though they are evidently trying to find it through repeated iterations of similar melodies and cadences. “’tis the damn season” is a homespun small-town angle on a Christmas song, but it has the depth of a Hallmark movie (and a chorus that begins all too familiarly). Rain-soaked ballad “cowboy like me” offers a ripe tale of two con artists meeting, but it wallows without finding any air. The chirpy “dorothea” is let down by lines that should have been left on the cutting room floor; “damn, Dorothea, they all wanna be ya” being the worst culprit.

“no body, no crime” is a fun hark back to Swift’s country roots and storytelling, but it’s also rather ham-fisted. That Danielle and Este Haim are relegated to background cameos feels like a wasted use of top talent too. The listless “coney island” attempts to marry two collided worlds where Swift duets with The National’s lead singer Matt Berninger, and while the song has a sentimental charm about it and offers one of Berninger’s cleaner vocal takes, his voice sounds too lived-in against Swift’s smooth mezzo-soprano. It’s like a song intended for two lovers, but accidentally and awkwardly sounds like it’s being sung between father and daughter. 

Just like folkloreevermore could have done with some pruning to make it a concise and defined listen. But, equally, putting out an album of 15 new tracks after releasing an album of 16 tracks less than half a year ago (and that’s not taking bonus tracks into consideration) is part of Swift’s maximalist approach. Her faith in her notorious songwriting ability is part of her musical identity now; every story is worth telling, and that remains evidently true on evermore. It seems destined to be playlisted with folklore, fans choosing their favourites from a wealth of song options and making their own ideal listening experience from her current stylistic foray.

Indeed, as Swift describes in the 2020 documentary film Miss Americana, she’s always made music to make people happy, and evermore is no different – but it seems a little too obvious at points here. “I also know this holiday season will be a lonely one for most of us and if there are any of you out there who turn to music to cope with missing loved ones the way I do, this is for you,” she wrote as part of the album’s announcement. evermore will be there for many fans, losing themselves in these new characters and raking through the material for easter eggs. 

But importantly, by venturing further into these “folklorian woods,” Swift truly sounds like she’s making the music she wants to at this moment in time, mining deeper and trying new ways of dressing up her songs. Not everything on evermore truly works or lands satisfyingly, but it’s all part of a creative process that is producing some of her best and most surprising work to date. And considering portions of the world are still dealing with lockdown and are isolating ahead of returning home for Christmas, it still certainly feels like the best “worst time” to be making music like this.

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