Taylor Swift appears to be waging war over the serial resale of her old master recordings on two fronts. She recently confirmed that she is already underway in the process of re-recording the six albums she made for the Big Machine label, in order to steer her fans (and sync licensing execs) toward the coming alternate versions she’ll control. But now that she’s followed the surprise release of “Folklore” with the very, very surprise release of “Evermore” less than five months later, the thought may occur: If she keeps up this pace, she may have more new albums out on the Republic label than she ever did on Big Machine in a quarter of the time.
Flooding the zone to further crowd out the oldies is unlikely to be Swift’s real motivation for giving the world a full-blown “Folklore” sequel this instantaneously: As motivations for prolific activity go, relieving and sublimating quarantine pressure is probably even better than revenge. Anyway, this is not a gift horse to be looked in the mouth. “Evermore,” like its mid-pandemic predecessor, feels like something that’s been labored over — in the best possible way — for years, not something that was written and recorded beginning in August, with the bow said to be put on it only about a week ago. Albums don’t get graded on a curve for how hastily they came together, or shouldn’t be, but this one doesn’t need the handicap. It’d be a jewel even if it’d been in progress forevermore and a day.
The closest analog for the relation the new album bears to its predecessor might be one that’d seem ancient to much of Swift’s audience: U2 following “Achtung Baby” with “Zooropa” while still touring behind the previous album. It’s hard to remember now that a whole year and a half separated those two related projects; In that very different era, it seemed like a ridiculously fast follow-up. But the real comparison lies in how U2, having been rewarded for making a pretty gutsy change of pace with “Achtung,” seemed to say: You’re okay with a little experimentation? Let’s see how you like it when we really boil things down to our least commercial impulses, then — while we’ve still got you in the mood.
Swift isn’t going avant-garde with “Evermore.” If anything, she’s just stripping things down to even more of an acoustic core, so that the new album often sounds like the folk record that the title of the previous one promised — albeit with nearly subliminal layers of Mellotrons, flutes, French horns and cellos that are so well embedded beneath the profuse finger-picking, you probably won’t notice them till you scour the credits. But it’s taking the risk of “Folklore” one step further by not even offering such an obvious banger (irony intended) as “Cardigan.” Aaron Dessner of the National produced or co-produced about two-thirds of the last record, but he’s on 14 out of 15 tracks here (Jack Antonoff gets the remaining spot), and so the new album is even more all of a piece with his arpeggiated chamber-pop impulses, Warmth amid iciness is a recurring lyrical motif here, and kind of a musical one, too, as Swift’s still increasingly agile vocal acting breathes heat into arrangements that might otherwise seem pretty controlled. At one point Swift sings, “Hey, December, I’m feeling unmoored,” like a woman who might even know she’s going to put her album out a couple of weeks before Christmas. It’s a wintry record — suitable for double-cardigan wearing! — and if you’re among the 99% who have been feeling unmoored, too, then perhaps you are Ready For It.
Swift said in announcing the album that she was moving further into fiction songwriting after finding out it was a good fit on much of “Folklore,” a probably inevitable move for someone who’s turning 31 in a few days and appears to have a fairly settled personal life. Which is not to say that there aren’t scores to settle, and a few intriguing tracks whose real-life associations will be speculated upon. But just as the “Betty”/”August” love triangle of mid-year established that modern pop’s most celebrated confessional writer can just make shit up, too, so, here, do we get the narrator of “Dorothea,” a honey in Tupelo who is telling a childhood friend who moved away and became famous that she’s always welcome back in her hometown. (Swift may be doing a bit of empathic wondering in a couple of tracks here how it feels to be at the other end of the telescope.)
One time the album takes a turn away from rumination into a pure spirit of fun — while getting dark anyway — is “No Body, No Crime,” a spirited double-murder ballad that may have more than a little inspiration in “Goodbye, Earl.” Since Swift already used the Dixie Chicks for background vocals two albums ago, for this one she brings in two of the sisters from Haim, Danielle and Este, and even uses the latter’s name for one of the characters. Yes, the rock band Haim’s featured appearance is on the only really country-sounding song on the record… there’s one you didn’t see coming, in the 16 hours you had to wonder about it.
Yet there are also a handful of songs that clearly represent a Swiftian state of mind. At least, it’s easy to suppose that the love songs that opens the album, “Willow,” is a cousin to the previous record’s “Invisible String” and “Peace,” even if it doesn’t offer quite as many clearly corroborating details about her current relationship as those did. On the sadder side, Swift is apparently determined to run through her entire family tree for heartrending material. On “Lover,” she sang for her stricken mother; on “Folklore,” for her grandfather in wartime. In that tradition the new album offers “Marjorie,” about the beloved grandmother she lost in 2003, when she was 13. (The lyric videos that are being offered online mostly offer static visual loops, but the one for “Marjorie” is an exception, reviving a wealth of stills and home-movie footage of Grandma, who was quite a looker in a miniskirt in her day.) Rue is not something Swift is afraid of here anymore than anywhere else, as she sings, “I should’ve asked you questions / I should’ve asked you how to be / Asked you to write it down for me / Should’ve kept every grocery store receipt / ‘Cause every scrap of you would be taken from me,” lines that will leave a dry eye only in houses that have never known death. The piece de resistance in its poignance is Swift actually resurrecting faint audio clips of Marjorie, who was an opera singer back in the day. It’s almost like ELO’s “Rockaria,” played for weeping instead of a laugh.
Swift has not given up, thank God, on the medium that brought her to the dance — the breakup song — but most of them here have more to do with dimming memories and the search for forgiveness, however slowly and incompletely achieved, than feist. But doesn’t Swift know that we like her when she’s angry? She does, and so she delves deep into something like venom just once, but it’s a good one. The ire in “Closure,” a pulsating song about an unwelcome “we can still be friends, right?” letter from an ex, seems so fresh and close to the surface that it would be reasonable to speculate that it is not about a romantic relationship at all, but a professional one she has no intention of ever recalling in a sweet light. Or maybe she does harbor that a disdain for an actual former love with that machinelike a level of intensity.
Issues of fame are raised on a few occasions, which may or may not be an indicator of how personal they are to the sender. In “Coney Island,” she invokes an awards show oversight — probably as metaphor, not literal recollection, but who knows? “When I got into the accident the sight that flashed before me was your face / But when I walked up to the podium I think that I forgot to say your name.” “Gold Rush” will spark a good deal of fan speculation, to the extent that it’s about falling out of love with a golden boy who may be cursed by being even prettier and more magnetic than she is, a scenario that may be recently unimaginable but isn’t so much so, going deeper into her history. “I don’t like that anyone would die to feel your touch,” she admits in this scenario, describing someone whose “hair fall(s) into place like dominos.” The woman who once sang “You flew me to places I’d never been” now gets off a much better line: “I hate that falling feels like flying til the bone crush / Everybody wants you / And I don’t like a gold rush.”
Pleasures here are shared, though the list of fellow artists who’ve broken into her quarantine bubble this time around is only slightly expanded. Besides Haim’s cameo, Marcus Mumford offers a lovely harmony vocal on “Cowboy Like Me,” which might count as the other country song on the album, and even throws in something Swift never much favored in her Nashville days, a bit of lap steel. Its tale of male and female grifters meeting and maybe — maybe — falling in love is really more determinedly Western than C&W, per se, though. The National itself, as a group, finally gets featured billing on “Coney Island,” with Matt Berninger taking a duet vocal on a track that recalls the previous album’s celebrated Bon Iver collaboration “Exile,” with ex-lovers taking quiet turns deciding who was to blame. (Swift saves the rare laugh line for herself: “We were like the mall before the internet / It was the one place to be.) Don’t worry, legions of new Bon Iver fans: Dessner has not kicked Justin Vernon out of his inner circle just to make room for Berninger. The Bon Iver frontman whose appearance on “Folklore” came as a bit of a shock to some of his fan base actually makes several appearances on this album, and the one that gets him elevated to featured status again, as a duet, the closing “Evermore,” is different from “Exile” in two key ways. Vernon gets to sing in his high register… and he gets the girl.
“Evermore” is full of is narratives that really come into focus on second or third listen, usually because of a detail or two that turns her sometimes impressionistic modes completely vivid. “Champagne Problems” is a superb example of her abilities as a storyteller who doesn’t always tell all: She’s playing the role of a woman who quickly ruins a relationship by balking at a marriage proposal the guy had assumed was an easy enough yes that he’d tipped off his nearby family. “Sometimes you just don’t know the answer ‘ Til someone’s on their knees and asks you / ‘She would’ve made such a lovely bride / What a shame she’s fucked in the head’ / They said / But you’ll find the real thing instead / She’ll patch up your tapestry that I shred.” (Swift has doubled the F-bomb quotient this time around, among other expletives, for anyone who may be wondering whether there’s rough wordplay amid Dessner’s delicacy — that would an effing yes.) “‘Tis the Damn Season,” representing a gentler expletive, gives us a character who is willing to settle, or at least share a Christmas-time bed with an ex back in their hometown, till something better comes along.
But Swift never settles into fiction-writer mode for too long a stretch before coming back to something plainly diaristic. The song that most outrightly revives the narrative of the “Reputation” and “Lover” albums — that Swift suffered during the Backlash Years, then was rescued by the love of the boyfriend currently known as occasional co-writer “William Bowery” — is “Long Story Short.” “I tried to pick my battles, till the battle picked me,” she says, seemingly invoking Kanye-gate. “Pushed from the precipice / Clung to the nearest lips” is one of many examples of Swift finding the rhyme scheme less taken, while still letting emotion slightly exceed cleverness. There’s a major note-to-younger-self in this one: “Past me / I wanna tell you not to get lost in these petty things / Your nemeses will defeat themselves / Before you get the chance to swing.” Good advice for the Swift of five or 10 years ago, though she wrote enough solid diss tracks back in her day that we can probably be glad she didn’t take it too early before moving on to the older and wiser sentiments that fill these last few records.
The title “Gold Rush” isn’t used in a flattering way in its context as the title of one of the standout songs on the new album, but it’s a term that aptly fits what’s happened creatively for a singer who recorded a second great album in 2020 even as she was apparently autographing about a billion copies of the first. It’s an embarrassment of rich, striking albums-ending-in-“ore” that she’s mined out of lockdown. This particular quarantine bubble? It’s one we may not want to pop.