Taylor Swift’s follow-up album to folklore is a freewheeling invention and at once, a definitive moment in her discography. Here’s a review.
There’s been many Twitter jokes about Taylor Swift’s enhanced productivity in lockdown, but her sleeping pattern is still a matter of contention and, admittedly, concern. Her recurring, hyper-specific allusions to late-night hours (most famously 2 am) may be quite deceptive- she wants us to believe she’s pining for a British man, while she may be actually writing the chorus to ‘tis the damn season’, sloshed out on expensive white wine.
At least, that’s what Jack Antonoff, Swift’s long-time friend and recurring producer, told us on the Folklore: Long Pond Studio Sessions, a live recording of her previous album with conversational interludes to explain the makings of the songs. If that’s the case, it explains how Swift has been able to produce two admittedly remarkable albums within the span of less than a year.
Just last year in July, the 31-year-old singer surprise-released her eight-studio album, folklore, which I also reviewed here. It was noted for its manifold implications; first, it was Swift’s first self-documented indie album; secondly, it was one of the first major releases during the restrictive lockdown period; thirdly, it wrung the Cottagecore aesthetic out of tumblr’s murky recesses to mainstream appreciation. Also, it was just really, really good. It was the quietest, and simultaneously most noticeable, moment in her discography – a typically Swiftan contrast (think of ‘Sad, Beautiful and Tragic’ or ‘And he’s long gone when he’s next to me’ in I Knew You Were Trouble’).
But it’s safe to assume that – after folklore – Swift could have easily slithered back to relatively private affairs with her London Boy and trio of ill-behaved cats. The world had enough Swift material to soundtrack their lives through several breakups-with-people-you-never-actually-dated and heartrending episodes of I-made-brief-eye-contact-with-a-cute-guy-on-the-Metro-and-for-the-rest-of-the-Day-I-am-love.
I personally could have spent more time with the uncanny yet heroic antics of Rebecca Harness on the last great American dynasty, the self-doubting performer on mirrorball, and the emotional fretwork of James, Betty, and Augustine on betty, cardigan, and august respectively. But no, Miss Swift decided to release another album to call us out.
Continuing the tradition initiated by its predecessor, evermore was announced a day before its release. Purportedly owing its title to an Emily Dickinson poem, the album was described as a ‘sister-record’ to folklore by Swift herself. She added on her Instagram, “It feels like we were standing on the edge of the folkloric woods and had a choice: to turn and go back or to travel further into the forest of this music. We chose to wander deeper in.”
Visually, the album did seem to establish a clear-cut departure from forested visuals of folklore. The only visual changeability was the appearance of color, with folklore being entirely monochrome while evermore had earthly hues. On the album cover, Swift stands facing the woodlands in autumnal weather with her braided head turned to us, sporting a woolen jacket with tinges of optimistic orange and dusky brown. The last detail tells us about the duality of the album’s mood, a crisscross of remaining hope from one’s adolescent years, and a sort of world-worn cynicism.
Building on the experimental composition of her preceding album evermore is a dashboard of hand-plucked strings, multiple dimensions, and intimate vocals. But evermore seems to be more structurally aligned with its 2012 ancestor, Red, than folklore. While folklore was a more shipshape performance, evermore is less contained – a shambolic range of emotions, tones, and lyricism. On the album, Swift has the same personnel as her last album – Jack Antonoff, Aaron Desser, and Bon Iver. There’s a new collaboration with the Haim sisters, giving us Swift’s most country-sounding track in years.
In an hour-long interview with Apple Music, Swift had admitted that she has become less autobiographical in her writing, partly as a buffer against the sadistic gawk on her personal life. She seems to have made a Faustian bargain, trading her Joni Mitchell type of confessional writing for fictional – or at least auto-fictional – accounts that feel as real as any of her front-cover romances and tabloid crackdowns.
A case in point is: Tolerate It, track number five, where she is sourcing Daphne Du Maurier’s twentieth-century gothic romance Rebecca to tell the story of an unreturned devotion. Anyone who has ever been taken for granted in a relationship will resonate with this. It is a punch to the gut. If you are emotionally prone to sudden cries, a piece of advice: do NOT listen to this on public transport.
The album opens with ‘willow’, also the lead single, which sounds like – on Swift’s own admission – the sonic remedy of a desiring witch, waiting long-sufferingly around her moonlit cottage for a love to wander in. This is hardly the centerpiece of the album by any measure, but a good starter nonetheless. A definite highlight of the album is ‘champagne problems’ that records the tragic spectacle of a rejected proposal (involving two college sweethearts, one of who is suffering from mental illness and thus, unable to commit). ‘Gold Rush’ is a tempo-shifting pop melody, that compares an eye-catching beautiful lover to California’s gold rush. It’s hard when everybody wants the same thing as you. It’s even harder if you’re in love.
One of my favourites on the album is Ivy, track number 7, where an unhappily married woman falls into a treacherous passion for someone that’s not her husband (My pain fits in the palm of freezing hand/Taking mine but it’s been promised to another). For a lot of people, this song seems to have Sapphic potential, and for me, it is directly reminiscent of the story in A Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
On another song ‘No Body, No Crime’, Swift – an enthusiast of Law and Order: SUV Unit (her second cat, Olivia Benson is named after a character on the show) – writes her own mystery novel. This is the anticipated Haim collaboration on the record. Swift even name-drops the band member Este Haim and her favorite place to eat, Olive Garden, in the song. It’s an instant bop, albeit a little repetitive and formulaically straightforward. Another favorite of mine is cowboy like me, where two con artists – the Robin Hood sort – staying at a resort together meet at the emptying dance floor and fall for each other.
Tis the Damn Season takes you back to your godforsaken hometown for the holidays where you’re buying cheap grocery-store Sula to get through the artifice of another Hallmark Christmas at your parents’ house just when you run into a past romance that – as you find out – hasn’t quite run its course yet. This song is directly concomitant to the Dorothea, another song, that is a letter to a love that got away.
But Swift gets personal too. Earlier in her career, Swift once said at a live performance that ‘Some songs are written for people and some to them’. Marjorie is a song written directly to her passed grandmother, Marjorie Finley, an Opera singer. She reflects bleakly on the fact that sometimes you lose some family too soon before you get a chance to ask them to ‘write it all down for you’ and ‘tell you how to be’ – thus, stunting the rotation of passed-on, generational wisdom. In the song, Swift imagines, infers what her grandmother might have said: ‘Never be so polite you forget your power/Never yield such power that you forget to be polite’.
For me, the album is set in a small, magical suburban town like Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow, where a set of diverse characters intermingle with each other, producing tales of emotional depth and narrative tenacities. It isn’t hard to imagine the unhappily married protagonist of Ivy driving past the school where Dorothea and her lover went together. Or think of the confidence tricksters who fell for each other in cowboy like me retreating into a cottage in this small town after tiring of their double-crossing exploits. Little do they know about Este’s friend avenging her by murdering the husband who went a little too far. Only a faint rumour about the deceiving mistress has reached them. They think she did it. Winter has just come in, and a certain ruminative spell with it, compelling all these characters to consider themselves in a changing light, and consider too, their lives.
Evermore is more like venturing into the vacant neck of the folkloric woods, where the myth-making gets rougher around the edges and so, freer. The songs take their time to breathe, and so do you with every listen.
Image Credit: Taylor Swift Nation