Review: evermore, a musical tapestry to get you through the indie winter

Wowowow. The devil works hard but Taylor Alison Swift works harder. I cannot believe that in the span of a single year we’ve gotten a documentary, two Disney+ specials, and TWO albums! Freed from the administrative and creative requirements of planning a world tour, and freed from the clutches of Big Machine Records, Taylor has more bandwidth to create than ever before and I just feel lucky to watch her take her artistry to new heights. So here are a fraction of my thoughts; I managed to keep everything under 2,000 words…

Taylor’s ninth studio album evermore is the “sister record” of folklore, in that it picks up where the latter left off—literally, the “willow” music video begins with the “cardigan” video’s ending scene. Like folklore, evermore is co-written mainly with The National’s Aaron Dessner and continues to extend the cottagecore aesthetic of folklore. The woodland backdrop that has characterized most of the album’s artwork finds its musical counterparts in “willow” and “ivy,” the two flora, folksy songs of the album. I love the vocal runs in both songs (the way Taylor sings “follow/hollow” in “willow,” and “goddamn” in “ivy”). The strumming patterns seem like a nod to the Civil Wars, with whom Taylor wrote “Safe and Sound.” In some ways, “willow” and “ivy” are quite different songs: the former is our adventurous and meandering lead single, while the latter is an understated track, placed much later on in the record. But both songs are set in the metaphorical woods and use natural motifs to describe the gravitational pull of a loved one—“Life was a willow, and it bent right to your wind” / “I can’t stop you putting roots in my dreamland.” Taylor has described going into nature as a form of escape, and it feels appropriate that the escapism offered by love is symbolized by nature as well in both songs.

A recurring scene in Taylor’s musical tapestry is the image of splendor tainted by scandal; of glamor dashed with gloom; of beauty marked by bruises. In “Bad Blood,” she asks, “did you have to ruin what was shiny? Now it’s all rusted.” In “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” a glittering “champagne sea” is emptied out because of a backstabbing friend. In “the last great American dynasty,” oil heiress Rebekah Harness parties with Dali and fills “the pool with champagne” but also spends recklessly and earns a reputation as a mad, shameless woman. And true to form, we see fancy fraught by fatality in evermore’s “champagne problems,” a tender track about a woman who shocks everyone by turning down her fiance’s proposal. “Your sister splashed out on the bottle / Now no one’s celebrating;” “Dom Perignon, you brought it / No crowd of friends applauded;” you’ve got to admire the lyrical turn from celebratory to tragic, which is as swift as a brushstroke.

Likewise, in “tolerate it,” a well-wrought scene is soaked in heartbreak. The song paints a portrait of picture-perfect domestic life (“use my best colors for your portrait / lay the table with the fancy shit;” “I polish plates until they / gleam and glisten”) and wallows in the sadness of watching these gestures go unnoticed, merely “tolerated” by an unfeeling partner. It reminds me of those Dutch still life paintings in which everything looks pristine, and yet something feels amiss or grotesque. The heartbreak in the song cuts even deeper when you realize that it’s a response to the nostalgic “invisible string” from folklore—we go from “something wrapped all of my past mistakes in barbed wire” to “where’s that man who’d throw blankets over my barbed wire.” And “tolerate it” has one of the best lyrics on the record: “Now I’m begging for footnotes in the story of your life” (I gasped!!). It’s worth pointing out that “tolerate it” is track 5, meaning that it’s the song Taylor considers to be the most emotional on the album.

While evermore doesn’t have the intricate storyline we followed in folklore (James-Betty-August love triangle), it does introduce a new character: Dorothea, who Taylor describes as a “girl who left her small town to chase down Hollywood dreams.” The song “dorothea” is sung from the perspective of someone from her hometown who knew her before she became famous; “You got shiny friends since you left town / A tiny screen’s the only place I see you now.” The song seems like a direct nod to the Lumineers’ “Ophelia” and “Angela,” two songs that are also named after women whose names end with “a” (lol) and paint a vivid vignette around a character. And “’tis the damn season” is from Dorothea’s perspective as she returns home for the holidays and seeks out the “only soul / Who can tell which smiles I’m fakin’” (faking smiles is a recurring line in Taylor’s songs, too, and often describes how she feels about life under the limelight). I particularly like that “‘tis the damn season” is Taylor’s first moody Christmas song (or second, if you count “Back to December”), which I vastly prefer to last year’s jingly “Christmas Tree Farm.” Taylor has said that evermore represents fall and winter (whereas folklore was spring and summer) and no track feels more wintery than “evermore,” the album’s titular and final track. Even Taylor’s voice sounds like the crisp winter air on this track; “Hey December / Guess I’m feeling unmoored / Can’t remember / What I used to fight for.” The piano in the song is played by Joe Alwyn, who is shockingly about to become my favorite collaborator of Taylor’s. And the song transforms magically when Bon Iver enters the song—it feels like we’re suddenly thrown into his song “Holocene,” which was the song I listened to every Christmas back in high school. While this collaboration isn’t quite as stirring as “exile” from folklore, it screams “indie winter” nonetheless.

But when it comes to the album’s features, my favorite is indubitably “no body, no crime,” featuring HAIM. It’s a revenge-themed country track in the lineage of the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” and, of course, Taylor’s “Picture to Burn.” Taylor wrote the song herself after listening to crime podcasts and decided to use Este’s name in the song—hence leading to HAIM’s involvement. As a die-hard HAIM and Taylor fan, I’m obviously ecstatic. I have been waiting for this moment for five years. But I’m also somewhat disappointed—I wish HAIM had more of a presence in the song, and the fact that they only sing backing vocals (by “they” I mean only Danielle and Este, no Alana) is symptomatic of a bone I have to pick with Taylor: she rarely collaborates with women, and when she does, they only sing background vocals (e.g. Colbie Caillat, the Dixie Chicks). On the other hand, Ed Sheeran, Future, Bon Iver, Gary Lightbody, etc. get full verses and writing credits. So, I really can’t help but feel a little sad about the under-utilization of HAIM. But otherwise, “no body, no crime” is deliciously dramatic and the lyrics truly, truly slap.

Speaking of country, lyrics, and backing vocals, “cowboy like me” is the other country song on the record, and it’s just gorgeous! It has some of the best lyrics, too: I’m obsessed with how Taylor sings the word “perched” in the chorus. Taylor references Gatsby (one day I might write a longer piece on this) and romantic poetry so many times in her recent work, but from a literary standpoint, I feel like the unadorned prose of  “cowboy like me” is where it’s at. Compare these lines from folklore’s bonus track “the lakes” — “I want auroras and sad prose / I want to watch wisteria grow right over my bare feet”—to this scene from “cowboy”—”never wanted love / Just a fancy car / Now I’m waiting by the phone / Like I’m sitting in an airport bar.” The former is flowery and evocative, but the latter simply just pulls you right into the scene. To me, “cowboy like me” is one of the most moving songs on the album.

There are songs on evermore that almost sound as if they could be a pop song. “Gold Rush,” a Jack Antonoff collab, has the soaring, shimmering quality of many songs on Lover. Lyrically, it’s denser, and makes you nod your head throughout. It also has the best rhymes on the album—”gold rush / red flush / quick brush / rose blush / bone crush.” Taylor is a real poet, you guys. Like “gold rush,” “long story short” also has a pop vibe, and reminds me of “I forgot that you existed” in that the song has big “shrug” energy. “I forgot that you existed / And I thought that it would kill me, but it didn’t” sounds very nonchalant, as does “Long story short, it was a bad time.” “Closure,” the penultimate track with a crackling percussion undertone, is defiant in this way too; the song’s speaker rejects closure. By doing so, these songs also refuse to enter full “pop” mode—they present no freewheeling bridge or climax. And without the glam and glitz of pop production, Taylor’s voice can shine more as its own instrument. I honestly think she’s never sounded better.

And yet the absence of Taylor’s trademark hooks, and the concentration of the unhurried, undeviating melodies for which The National is known, results in songs that can come across as repetitive and even monotonous. “Happiness” is a lyrically thoughtful track, scattered with allusions to The Great Gatsby. But the song is 5:15 minutes long (Taylor wrote it just last week) and doesn’t hold much structure. “Marjorie,” a song about Taylor’s grandmother, is moving and haunting (it even incorporates some of Marjorie’s vocals), but lyrically falls flat compared to the other songs on the album. And “coney island,” which features Matt Berninger of The National, sounds more like a National song than a Taylor song. I can’t quite explain it, but the way “merry go” stacks on top of “sorry for not making you my centerfold” (which is still lyrically beautiful, by the way) is very The National-esque. All this is to say, I think Taylor’s collaboration with the men of alt-rock and indie-folk has been wonderfully productive, but—I’d like to see more of her, and a wee bit less of The National, in her music.

The stories that Taylor tell on evermore flourish in the contrasting themes of return and departure; prolonging and resolution. The idiom “open-and-shut” that appears in “willow” thus serves as a perfect metaphor for the entire album. “Open” and “shut” are antonyms, but when put together, they describe a case that is indisputable. What’s indisputable on evermore is that Taylor not only creates memorable and evocative characters but is one herself; no matter what genre she steps into or which collaborators she invites into her world, her poetic and musical presence polishes and defines whatever she touches. She can transport us into any time or place—be it the Methodist church in “’tis the damn season” or the airport bar in “cowboy like me.” The leaves on the trees and the winter air feel different when I walk down the street listening to evermore. I’m drawn into the drama of a murder mystery, or a lover’s jealousy, or the thrill of an imagery former flame. I’m so grateful to be closing out the year with new music from Tay, who as always helps me get through so much. I know I’ll be listening to her music for “evermore.” 😭💖

On Forgetting, Remembering, and Accidentally Rereading William Maxwell’s “So Long, See You Tomorrow”

I’ve always prided myself on my good memory. When watching a movie, I can usually identify what other roles the actors in that film have played. To Kevin’s annoyance, I sometimes bring up details about our first year of dating that he can’t remember. I also have a knack for remembering song lyrics (and not just those written by Taylor Swift). Which was why I was so surprised to discover this morning that a book I had just finished—William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow—was actually a book I had already read 7 years ago, in 2013.   

Let’s rewind for a minute. I found a copy of Maxwell’s book in a Little Free Library near our apartment last month while jogging around the neighborhood. I go on a short run every day, mostly to get out of the house, and always make a point to stop by the many Little Free Libraries stationed in the area. From the outside, Little Free Libraries share similar qualities; they are often made of wood and shaped like a small house. The books inside are typically protected by a glass window that one can peer through to scope out what’s inside. I know of almost ten Little Free Libraries near me, and they’ve each taken on a distinct personality based not on how they look, but what books they hold. One library tends to contain books about food and, more recently kink. Another mostly has children’s picture books, such as Captain Underpants. A few of them often feature old paperbacks, from a beat-up edition of The Lord of the Rings to a copy of José Saramago’s Blindness. I almost never take a book from the libraries, and mostly just enjoy peering inside (I have a “window shopping” habit). But when I came across the quaint little house with William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow in it—I felt a spark light up in my brain.

My immediate memory of the book was that it was something I had once wanted to read, put some effort into finding, and never got around to reading. Or perhaps it was a book I had read, but not finished? Either way, the book sat in my mind like an unfinished task. So, I brought it home.

Over the course of reading the book, it became clear to me (or so I thought) that I had indeed never read it. This was, as far as I was concerned, my first time reading it. Occasionally I would come across sentences that seemed familiar, but I would attribute those rare flashes of recognition to quotes I had seen in passing on the Internet. When I closed the book this morning, I thought to myself—well, I’ve finally finished it.

Still holding the book in my hands, I suddenly had the idea that I should update my Goodreads account, which I used to update religiously but haven’t touched in ages. I might as well start by adding So Long, See You Tomorrow to my list of 2020 reads, I thought. Perhaps the fact that Goodreads even crossed my mind should have been a sign that somewhere deep in my unconscious, a string of my memory had been plucked. But either way, I looked up the book on Goodreads and saw—with a shock—that I had already read the book. In 2013. Not only had I read it, I had even written a little review:

I had described the book as a “hazy half-recollection,” a line taken from the fourth chapter of the novel, and my memory of the book can ironically be described as such. As I read my review of the book, I was confused by the line about the MOMA painting, which (having just finished the book) I couldn’t recall. Did I read the same book? I wondered aloud, while Kevin chucked beside me. I flipped through the first few chapters of the book again and realized that, yes, I do remember reading the part about The Palace at 4 a.m. But it’s a sculpture, not a painting. And for some reason, I had found it a more important detail back in 2013 than I do now. 

On August 4, 2013, I had noted on Goodreads: “the public library near where I live nearly lost this book, but I’ve finally found it.” Slowly, I began to remember. In my teenage years I went through a phase where I was determined to read books that were “contemporary classics,” books outside the syllabus that would help me become “well-read.” I remember pinpointing So Long, See You Tomorrow as one of those books. I also remember trying to find it at the Hong Kong Central Library, one of my favorite places in the world. I no longer know what I meant by saying that the library “nearly lost this book,” but one way or another I found it. Clearly, I also read it, and wrote a short review (as I did with every books I read those days) on my blog at the time, which is too embarrassing to hyperlink here, but here’s a screenshot of part of the review: 

Most of the review is identical with the Goodreads review, save for a number of quotes at the end as well as the first sentence: “I put a colossal amount of effort into hunting down this book, and it was worth the effort.” I could not have arrived at the same book, 7 years down the line, under more different circumstances.

If 16-year-old May had only known that at age 23, she’d find this elusive book by accident, without even trying to look for it, maybe she wouldn’t have searched so hard back then. And if 23-year-old May had not once read the book, and therefore not realized on a sunny December morning in 2020 that the book she just finished had once crossed her path, she wouldn’t be writing this blog post thinking about the unreliability of memory. 

But in a way, this is what So Long, See You Tomorrow is all about. 

“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.” 

The novel is told from the perspective of a grown man who cannot move on from the guilt he feels towards a specific moment in his childhood: his missed opportunity to extend a sign of compassion to his childhood friend Cletus Smith, whose father Clarence just killed the man with whom his wife was having an affair.

The narrator’s guilt seems small compared to the guilt that you’d expect Cletus’s mother Fern and her lover Lloyd Wilson (who used to be Clarence’s best friend) to feel. Fern cheated on her husband and then initiated ugly divorce proceedings that ruined Clarence’s life; Lloyd betrayed his best friend. It’s clear that these characters pay for their actions. But most of the novel depends on the narrator’s guilt, as well as the narrator’s imagined telling of the events leading up to Lloyd’ murder.

Reading my review from 2013, I realize that I now have a different reading of the book. Back then, I had placed Cletus at its center. But now, I see that our narrator’s imagination forms the scaffolding on which the entire story rests. By imagining what happened to Cletus, by going so far as to invent a fictional dog for him, the narrator uses storytelling as a form of absolution—for both himself and young Cletus. The narrator of So Long, See You Tomorrow wants to absolve himself a guilt he rationally knows he should not hold on to, and to absolve Cletus of a shame that should not have been his to bear. Although the novel is told from the perspective of an adult and revolves around the consequences of grown-up decisions (adultery, marriage, murder), it is Maxwell’s exposition of childhood and sympathy towards children that pull the book together.

In 2013, I described the narrator’s description of the whole affair as a “recollection,” but the more accurate word I would use now is “imagination.” The narrator doesn’t “remember” what happened to Cletus; he reads some newspapers from 1921 and then proceeds to invent the rest. In the 7 years that have passed since 2013, I have grown more suspicious of “unreliable narrators” and perhaps become one myself. I’d also like to think I’m a more careful reader, although I know I’m still not careful enough. Like Maxwell’s narrator who compares his childhood guilt to his feelings as an adult, I now compare how I received the book then and how I read it now to arrive at some understanding of what it means to grow up, experience loss, and crave understanding.

In 2013, I had identified one of the novel’s later passages as its “best chunk.” It’s the moment after Cletus has to leave his childhood home (and his father) to start a new life. A series of losses, things being “taken away,” mark his transition from childhood into adulthood. Yet I also think of this as the scene where our narrator starts to undo his imagining by removing the elements that populated his storytelling. The fictional dog goes away, as do the everyday objects that populated the narrative: the sound of crows, a pitcher, the smell of hay. Without these elements, does the narrator still have a story to tell?

In 2020, the passage from the book that I may consider the “best chunk” can be interpreted as the opposite of the section above. This passage, which appears early on in the book, actually describes the narrator’s own childhood—before he begins to tell the story of Cletus’s. In the passage, he describes how everyday objects allowed him to cope with the grief of losing his mother. Commonplace objects, from the two big elm trees to the trumpet vine by the back door, help him go from one day to the next.

Children tend to derive comfort and support from the totally familiar—an umbrella stand, a glass ashtray backed with brightly colored cigar bands, the fire tongs, anything. With the help of these and other commonplace objects—with the help also of the two big elm trees that shaded the house from the heat of the sun, and the trumpet vine by the back door, and the white lilac bush by the dining-room window, and the comfortable wicker porch furniture and the porch swing that contributed its creak…creak…to the sounds of the summer night—I got from one day to the next.”

Whereas Cletus’s childhood is marked by the disappearance of familiar objects, our narrator is comforted by the reappearance of commonplace things, and I think this is the crucial difference between both boys. Throughout the novel, the narrator continues to make things appear, i.e. tell his own story of what happened to Cletus, because this is the form of comfort and support he understands. And although he is guilted by his failure to reach out to Cletus back then, through storytelling he tries to give Cletus everything (including a dog)—although it all has to end, inevitably, in disappearance.

Memory is a flawed instrument, and also our most precious tool for holding on to people and places long gone. But one who seeks the truth cannot always depend on memory. Unless we have documents from the past to corroborate or correct our beliefs (be it a 2013 Goodreads review or a newspaper from 1921), what really happened or what we wished had happened may only transpire through the stories we tell ourselves. I’m glad I read So Long See You Tomorrow for a second time, even though it felt like the first time. Perhaps 7 years later, I’ll revisit the book (and this blog post, and the one before it) again, my memory of it all no doubt shaped by “a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.”