‘In the disbelief I can’t face reinvention. I haven’t met the new me yet.’ So sings Taylor Swift in her ninth and most recent album. Swift has talked before about the pressure on female artists to be constantly recreating themselves, but here her break from this expectation has paid off in the fullest way. For those who warn against the inability of a sequel to match up to the original, this ‘sister album’ to folklore is, like the second Godfather installment or Shrek 2, one of those exquisite exceptions which prove the rule. evermore, in all its moody alt-folk glory, is a christmas gift.
Unlike its predecessors, it takes a few listens to start to unpick the complexities in sound and story. Accordingly I have listened to evermore cycling through Oxford fog, running round my village and most recently staring moodily into the fireplace like I’m starring in a shitter, Scottisher Call Me By Your Name remake. What has become apparent is a richness that I can hardly do justice to either in reception or writing – articles more informed than this one are already springing up tracing the correlation between different song-stories, or explaining the musical influence of her different collaborating artists. Nevertheless, this is me trying. Swift opens the album with ‘willow’, the folk influences signposting that evermore shares the same instrumental foundations as folklore, but is more experimental. Her stripped back, mid-tempo piano and picked guitar tie disparate themes together with an invisible indie swing, from the off-kilter ‘closure’ to the feral ‘no body, no crime’ (Taylor’s country has come a long way from misogyny to misandry and I am so ready for it). Because of this, evermore, even more than folklore, walks a delicate balance to avoid album accusations of either incoherency or mono-sound; it’s true that one or two songs don’t quite pull this off. ‘gold rush’ in particular shows the stumbling blocks of a collab between two distinct sounds, and is a jarring jumble of producer Antoff’s sonic set pieces which distracts from the gorgeous lyrical conceit of the song rather than adds to it. Elsewhere, however, this collaboration (among others) soars and leaves us with a stunning compilation of pieces, especially impressive as the second album she has produced in one year.
Form mirrors function; as much as these songs move away from chart-friendly pop, so Swift excludes herself from her narratives in a way not often seen in high profile artists. I think it’s a relief to be looking for meaning in her lyrics without trying to link it to the latest piece of tabloid gossip. On one level it allows a new layer to her songs; without a confirmed canon, ‘dorothea’ can be related by fans to ‘‘tis the damn season’, or it can be heard as a sapphic anthem. But crucially, Taylor’s character studies are proof that songwriters don’t need to lay bare details of their personal lives to pack an emotional punch. Just in time for Christmas, ‘‘tis the damn season’ has 2020 me wishing that 2015 me had not taken up debating or believed my mum that percussion was the coolest instrument, just to increase the probability I would now have a hometown ex to text. Autobiography in songs is only one way for them to be honest; fundamentally Taylor, unlike many contemporaries, is a lyricist first and it’s with this skill that she conveys an acute, almost painful at points, emotional honesty which is as transcendent in a song about a fictional ex-husband as it is about Tim McGraw. evermore sees an overload of word play, rich imagery and structural tricks to bring this home; even if you’ve somehow remained emotionally stable in the 2020 rollercoaster from cruel summer back to December, then ‘champagne problems’ and ‘ivy’ might just be the final straw for your tear ducts. The same mild treatment is given both to confessional suggestions of sensuality and to an erudite set of cultural references from F. Scott Fitzegerald to contemporary poet Miller Williams, creating a unique kind of shared experience. Swift has this gift which has you pull up, almost breathless, during a song about a specific failing marriage, or child-hood friend and think, oh that’s me. That’s how I feel but expressed in words that I didn’t necessarily have at my fingertips.
I said in a review of Lover, my possible favourite album before this point, that Swift’s gift lies in that she’s so invigorated by the concept of falling in love, it’s difficult not to get swept up in the excitement too. evermore hasn’t so much proven this wrong as expanded her interest to treat other types of passion with the same sensitivity. There’s a new maturity that doesn’t just come from the increased swearing in her last two albums (sexy as it is). These 17 tracks chart predominantly the breakdown of different relationships and from the perspectives of different parties but somehow any nastiness only goes as far as bittersweet and this remains an album which is ultimately uplifting to listen to. On one hand, this can be credited to a universal power of any beloved artist; there’s a warmth that comes from knowing whatever acute, individual emotion you feel is echoed around the world. Taylor certainly plays into this with a more self conscious use of narrative voice. But freshly, there’s a broader perspective here which gives a self-affirming power to the listener. evermore as an album recognises that the pain of lost love – romantic or platonic – is matched with the happiness that that relationship at one point brought, even as it acknowledges the difficulties in being able to hold on to this in the heat of the moment. Songs like ‘happiness’ sway from forgiveness to bad blood and back again in the same verse;
‘There’ll be happiness after you. But there was happiness because of you. Both of these things can be true – there is happiness.’
This is a fruitful symmetry and one which throws into relief the asymmetry of requitation and arrhythmic dualities of internal emotion that Taylor wants to explore – it’s these which go hand in hand in lived passion. This is why the titular song serves so well to complete the album, concluding that the pain of lost love can simultaneously be understood to be both temporary and evermore.
It was always going to be a love story for me and Taylor and I’m sure that this article has come across as far from unbiased. I’m happy to be made fun of as a T Swizzle fan, but I’m also coming to realise that my aggressive stanning of her isn’t just proportional, but reactionary. Frankly this is the side I’d rather err on. Fans know all too well that it is easy for her to be swept aside as the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ or bland pop princess by boys to whom The National or Bon Iver must be invoked in order for them to take her work seriously. 2020 marks the year that Swift dislodged Michael Jackson as the most awarded artist of all time and also, I hope, the year the world will finally stop any facade that it consumes Taylor Swift in any way other than non-ironic. evermore is just the latest piece of evidence in a long line of conquered musical genres that makes it clear that, as far as the music industry goes, Taylor Swift’s position is unapologetic, incomparable and irreplaceable.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.