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.” 😭💖

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