Album Review: evermore // Taylor Swift

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In a year clouded with uncertainty, isolation and loneliness, the richly weaved stories of folklore has been the cardigan I wrap around myself while I escape into the earthy imagery of Taylor Swift’s surprise eighth album. As the dark nights of winter have closed in, I have found myself regularly retreating into the sonic sanctuary of that beautiful lockdown gift. Yet, whilst many of us procrastinated and bathed in self pity during the lockdowns, Swift has been busy (again) with another surprise album announcement. “To try and put it more poetically, it feels like we were standing on the edge of the folklorian woods and had a choice: to turn and go back or to travel further into the forest of this music,” she stated. “We chose to wander deeper in.” The result is evermore.

While I couldn’t help but feel excitement that Swift had chosen to bless our year with another album, I also felt trepidation. folklore has been such a perfect companion to my lockdown, I didn’t want that feeling soiled by an album of outtakes or B-sides. The fact that Aaron Dessner has production credits on almost all songs, Jack Antonoff, William Bowery (aka Swift’s boyfriend, Joe Alwyn) and Bon Iver are again involved offered some reassurance.  Nervously, I pulled my cardigan tighter around me and stepped further into the woods.

The most noticeable aspect of evermore is that it is not as easily accessible its predecessor. As Swift said, this album takes us much deeper into the folklorian woods and it requires more than one listen to  appreciate the depth of the craft at work. The singer described it as “folklore’s sister record” but this is no twin. evermore is far more experimental, the ambience more earthy – dare I say more ‘folksy’? Arguably, it is a more cohesive representation of the genre.

Once again, Swift brings a third party perspective to her character driven stories. If anything, her storytelling skills are more honed than ever, drawing us in with detailed observations of fictional characters. At times, she reminds me of Springsteen. On ‘no body, no crime’, featuring backing from Haim, Swift manages to paint the picture of adultery and double murder with such finesse that the three minute song feels like an arthouse movie. On ‘dorothea’ we see a man trying to convince himself that his old flame would be happier back in their small town than amongst Hollywood Glitz; a musing played out above a joyously uplifting piano backdrop.

The rich character-driven arcs are also told from the first person perspective, where themes of adult love are once again explored. The piano driven ‘tolerate it’, with its gentle breathy vocals, aches as an unappreciated wife sings’: “I take your indiscretions all in good fun / I sit and listen, I polish plates until they gleam and glisten”. ‘happiness’ is a truly beautiful portrayal of post divorce reflection. The dark sombre intonation of the delivery “Tell me, when did your winning smile / Begin to look like a smirk” slowly gives way to a lighter tone as the narrator starts to see through the dark fog of the break-up and hope shines through “There’ll be happiness after you / But there was happiness because of you, too”. The plucked guitar and the folksy vocal delivery on ‘ivy’ compliment the sharply observed narration of falling in love with someone else, despite being married: “Oh, I can’t stop you putting roots in my dreamland”. Such is the power of the songwriting and the delivery that Swift really makes you care for these characters.

The core strength of evermore are the lyrics and how the stories draw the listener in. However, the album also holds some surprises. While as collection it fits more closely with the alternative-folk genre, we also see some bright shoots of pop peeking from the woodland carpet. ‘long story short’, ‘gold rush’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘willow’ have the synth undertone that harks back to the pop highlights of 1989. Yet, somehow, despite the programmed arrangements, the overall production, vocal delivery and clever use of other instruments keep the tracks routed in the campfire story aesthetic. These songs work beautifully acoustically but hint at being capable of breaking their leash and captivating a stadium crowd. Even the experimental backing of ‘closure’ still fits, although this is one track where the influence of Dessner and The National may have been better toned down. The fantastically bluesy ‘cowboy like me’ is one musical direction that suits Swift’s vocal delivery perfectly; it’s a dreamy interlude enhanced by backing from Marcus Mumford.

Swift albums never stray too far from personal reflection. While both folklore and evermore have stayed away from the tabloid-focussed observations of previous albums, most notably reputation, the personal touches do enhance the body of work. On ‘marjorie’, Swift sings about her opera singing grandmother, Marjorie Finlay, a track which includes samples from the woman herself. The photos on the lyric video add further poignancy to the tribute as Swift dwells on failing to appreciate time together: “I should’ve asked you questions / I should’ve asked you how to be”.

There are many moments on evermore where you find yourself reflecting on the characters whose story you have just been told. There are many points where you find yourself lost in your own thoughts from this difficult year. One of the strengths of the two albums is how the singer has managed to connect with the mood of the people; on album closer ‘evermore’ Swift sings, “Gray November / I’ve been down since July”. As 2020 draws to a close and Swift finishes her two surprise lockdown albums, along with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, she leaves us with hope: “This pain wouldn’t be for evermore”.

As evermore was released, Swift tweeted, “I have no idea what will come next”. Whatever direction she chooses to take, folklore and evermore have been stunning additions to her collection, and perfectly toned backdrops to 2020. If these two albums were my sisters, I would love them both equally.

Words by Andrew Butcher
Check out Andrew’s blog here

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