Let it be said - there will never be another time in the next decade where one of the world’s most influential musicians takes such a successful creative U-turn in the way Taylor Swift did this year. The alchemy will simply never be right. It’s a thought is sad but also sort of beautiful, like all things that enter and depart from Swift’s latest set of universes.
If ‘folklore’ "champions cinematic grace in a time of turbulent unease", it is ‘evermore’ that sends us for an extended stay along the paths of stories many of us keeled over to be told this summer.
Now, the two projects proudly stand side by side, finishing each other's sentences to sonic backdrops that choose to complement - rather than mimic - the other. - It may be the second installment of this journey, but it would be a disservice to suggest ‘evermore’ is just a ‘folklore 2.0’. Swift would never be so lazy - have you met her? It reads as a companion, not an extension. Sisters, not twins. The newer narratives found here speak to the older tales that lie fresh in the minds of many. For that reason much of the invites to her musical family remain the same, with The National’s Aaron Dessner ever-present for all of it no matter who stops by.
From the very beginning, Swift wants you to know these universes are intertwined. The music video for warm and steady lead single ‘willow’ starts right where it’s predecessor, the pained and prolific ‘cardigan’ ended. Whereas ‘cardigan’ sounded like a lost battle, resignation to the torrential misery of lost love, this continuation informs us that she’s still looking because ultimately, all is well in the end. ‘Evermore’ wholly offers more conviction, without sacrificing the vulnerability that enamoured even her biggest critics earlier this year.
‘Evermore’ summons the themes of infidelity, loss, yearning, and sacrifice that were contained within the walls of ‘folklore’ and coaxes them away from secrecy. She scales upwards all of the lyrics and sonic ideas that worked well last time, without diminishing their quality. Lakes become hallways of regal-sounding homes haunted by rejected proposals, as in piano ballad ‘champagne problems’. Illicit affairs are grander now, traversing dark dramatic HBO-worthy scenery as they do in bonafide country-tale-but-make-it-a-Haim-collaboration ‘no body, no crime’. Swift affronts herself and her audience on ‘happiness’ summoning familiar pains through unfamiliar people: ‘I can't make it go away by making you a villain/ I guess it's the price I pay for seven years in heaven/ And I pulled your body into mine every goddamn night/ now I get fake niceties’. It was only completed a week prior to the album’s release, but shimmers the best way Swift does these days - when she is at her most direct.
Some of folklore's few adversaries found the work to be - wrongly - one-note. To ensure the same can’t be said this time around, Taylor Swift takes the pertinent magic found in ‘folklore’ and melds it with the palettes of some of her earlier albums. When it works well, it’s a marriage made in heaven. Jack Antonoff has worked with Swift to master the art of the nostalgic bop since 2014 - his only credit on this album, ‘gold rush’, thrums along with some of that period’s more melancholic works. ‘cowboy like me’ hits with the same blissful misery of some Speak Now’s slow burn heartbreakers (think Last Kiss, Innocent). ‘Tolerate it’ can be celebrated along the ranks of Red’s impassioned ‘All Too Well’ as one of her best self-mythologised purposely painful track fives (for those unaware, here is some further reading).
Comparisons are useful to understanding the carefully managed arcs Swift has wanted fans to decode for her entire career. A decade ago, it was capitalising letters on lyric booklets to tell you exactly who each song was about. That teenage coding has soared to something greater, where Swift can have her audience just as fixated on tiny lyrical details, without ever knowing if the inspiration of these people came from Swift’s past, present or imagination alone. We hear the names of the songs' titular characters, landscapes painted with blurry edges, and have to make our own minds up about how they align with her reality.
It’s a maturer way to do things, exciting for many that live to get to the root of what Swift is trying to tell you. However, not being able to totally make sense of where she actually fits into some songs does lead to some of the album’s only skippable tracks, songs laden with metaphor overload such as ‘ivy’. At these points, the worlds created feel less immersive than the all-consuming gloom of what appeared was presented to us one morning last July.
This only makes up fragments of the bigger picture, and bears little meaning on the album as a whole. Swift may have found the end to her real-life invisible string, but that hasn’t stopped her from crafting further gorgeous stories around past pains, other people's heartbreaks, and pains imagined.
Taylor Swift professed in ‘evermore’s introductory essay - embraced like a sermon by her fans - that she has "no idea what will come next". It’s becoming painfully clear that none of us do anymore. But for now? We can bask in the stillness of these striking tales.
Words: Shannon McDonagh
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