So here we are again…again. And honestly, we should have seen this one coming. Of course, Taylor Swift, stuck in quarantine like the rest of us, decided to release a whole new collection of 17 songs as a sequel to her outstanding Folklore, unleashing it unto the world with as little warning as the last one. Evermore may be its own album, but it’s also very much an extension of Folklore – a “sister record,” as Swift calls it. And what better way to give such a songwriting-heavy project a second life? In lieu of the endless coordinated music videos, live shows and photoshoots that have tied each of her last five or so albums under one giant aesthetic umbrella, Swift has doubled down on Folklore’s themes of storytelling and contemporary mythology by, well, writing more songs.
With Evermore coasting on its older sibling’s tidal wave of success, Swift and her team had even more freedom to do whatever they wanted, and it reflects back in the music. She’s working here again with Aaron Dessner, Jack Antonoff, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and although Folklore’s moody, “indie”-inspired sound is still the dominant feature of Evermore, there’s room for more variety and experimentation this time around. The wicked country murder ballad “No Body, No Crime,” guest-starring Este and Danielle Haim, rubs elbows with the twinkling chamber-pop track “Gold Rush.” Swift warmly sings against honky-tonk piano in “Dorothea” and then, in the complete opposite direction, artificially distorts her voice on the seething “Closure,” using Bon Iver’s Messina vocal modifier to turn her soft timbre into a barely-contained robotic growl. It’s a refreshing change of pace: Swift’s usual approach to dabbling in new genres or sounds is to go balls-to-the-wall, but on Evermore, she’s just as good at curating these more detailed production flourishes, all with the same contouring and meticulousness as she does with her best lyrics.
Story songs are still the heart of the matter on Evermore, and Swift has a whole new cast of characters to join Betty, James, Rebekah and the rest from her prior Long Pond sessions. “‘Tis the Damn Season” introduces Dorothea, a Hollywood actress who returns to her hometown and reunites with a high school flame in a very adult tryst. We get to hear his side of the story in “Dorothea,” as he yearns for her to close the distance between them: “You got shiny friends since you left town/A tiny screen’s the only place I see you now.” But unlike the teenage love triangle that ran through the center of Folklore, there are few neat conclusions to Evermore’s tales. A woman breaks up with her college sweetheart the night he planned to propose; two con artists fall in love and promise an impossible life of stability to each other. On “Tolerate It,” one of Swift’s most damning relationship vignettes to date, one person’s love is met with cruel indifference from their other half. “I wait by the door like I’m just a kid/Use my best colors for your portrait/Lay the table with the fancy shit/And watch you tolerate it,” Swift warbles, making the situation sound, convincingly, like a fate worse than death.
Granted, none of these stories are executed with more or less finesse than the ones on Folklore. Whether by design, or simply by which songs she decided to put on which album, Evermore’s most revelatory moments come when Swift turns the mythmaking back around to herself. “Marjorie,” the closest thing the album has to a centerpiece, is a brilliant and devastating piece of songcraft, an instant classic in the Swift canon. Anyone familiar with the charity track “Ronan” is aware that Swift can write a damn good eulogy, and here she paints her own grandmother Marjorie Finley as an indelible force, a woman so much like herself yet whose complete story she’ll never be able to tell. “What died didn’t stay dead/What died didn’t stay dead,” Swift sings, steadfast. “You’re alive, you’re alive, in my head.” It’s hard to think of another song that so perfectly captures the delayed tragedy of losing a loved one when you’re too young to see their full worth.
If Swift seems hesitant to give her characters happy endings, or endings in general, it may be because she’s still figuring out her own next chapter right on the page. “I was dancing when the music stopped/And in the disbelief/I can’t face reinvention/I haven’t met the new me yet,” she sings on “Happiness,” a track she recorded just a week before the album dropped. It’s a gorgeous, ambient song, reminiscent of Chromatics without the four-on-the-floor beats, and while she’s ostensibly singing about divorce, Swift touches on so much more – nuanced acts of forgiveness, complex personal histories, the ability to visualize and know how a person can look in different shades of light. No doubt Swift is still the master of writing a spiteful kiss-off, but the songs of Evermore are a welcomed step in a more mature direction, the result of months and months of her getting lost in the woods and questioning her way forward. By the time you’re reading this, she may have already found the answer.