Pop

Taylor Swift Reinvented Herself With ‘Folklore’ And Now ‘Evermore’

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So much of our Covid-related discourse in 2020 centered on what was lost. But a precious few of us seized upon this very strange and sequestered year as an opportunity for acquiring some new part of ourselves. Was it a surprise that Taylor Swift was one of those people?

Her summer release Folklore was instantly contextualized as a quarantine project. Swift’s second album of 2020, Evermore, was similarly presented by the singer-songwriter herself as extra run-off from an especially fruitful songwriting period. But anyone taking a wider view of her career could see albums like Folklore and Evermore on Swift’s musical horizon, even before Covid. During the press cycle for her 2019 effort Lover, Swift was already expressing disdain for the pop machine, likening it to The Hunger Games. That strain was also apparent on the album, in which some very good “small” Taylor Swift songs were larded with some very bad “big” would-be hits like “Me” and “I Forgot You Existed.” More than ever, the gap between the songs in which Swift’s heart seemed to be truly invested and the songs required for radio exposure and meme-friendly virality was incredibly stark. As our current reigning stadium rocker, Swift had made Born In The U.S.A.-style mega-smashes time and again. Now, it seemed, she yearned to make her Nebraska.

But would pop’s chronic overachiever ever allow herself to make an album of strictly “small” and intimate songs? When the world shut down in 2020, the obligation to fill our stadiums and arenas with world-conquering jams suddenly became moot. And Swift — the canniest pop artist of the early 21st century — instantly recognized it. This was the perfect context for the commencement of her curse-word era, a chance to indulge in Dropboxed collaborations with admired artists who make indie records much cooler than hers. Ultimately, it was a pathway toward reimagining her career. And, like almost everything Taylor Swift does, it worked.

The strength of Folklore is how it puts the focus squarely on her wordplay and evolving penchant for spinning sharp narratives, in which this famous over-sharer is merely a wise and all-knowing narrator. Setting those lyrics against austere and atmospheric music created primarily with Aaron Dessner of The National made Swift seem more like a kind of musical novelist than a pop star — both more approachable as a scaled-down personality, and less visible in her songs as a familiar tabloid persona. It is the first Taylor Swift album that’s not immediately classifiable as an autobiographical work. Instead, it feels like a world onto itself.

It’s understandable that Swift would want to spend more time in that world. (For starters, even someone as rich as Swift has nothing better to do at the moment.) But even Folklore felt overstuffed — at 16 tracks, it’s a little samey in places, especially given the monochromatic nature of Dessner’s musical electro-folk beds. (This has also been an issue on the last few National records.) It’s still the second-best Taylor Swift record after Red, though it might have topped that record had it been reduced to an unbeatable 10-12 tracks, with “Cardigan,” “The Last Great American Dynasty,” “Mirrorball,” “August,” and “Invisible String” acting as a very strong core.

Swift — and surely her many fans — no doubt feel differently. So now comes Evermore, the Amnesiac to Folklore‘s Kid A. As Swift herself concedes, this is the first time that a Taylor Swift record has reiterated a previous album’s aesthetic, rather than pushing her music in a different direction. Put another way: It’s another 15 songs of novelistic Swift writing set against downbeat pianos, plunky acoustic guitars, and wintery-country vibes.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s a safe bet that if you loved Folklore you will at least like Evermore, though I suspect the predecessor will always feel more significant, as an album and as a gesture. As is usually the case with companion records, the one that comes second can’t help but sound like leftovers that sparkle a little less without the benefit of having the shock of the new. Even the best of Evermore — “Champagne Problems,” “Tis The Damn Season,” “Gold Rush,” “Marjorie” — can’t quite touch the best of Folklore, at least in part because we’ve already heard this Taylor Swift before. The same goes for Evermore‘s weaknesses, which go a little lower than Folklore. (Sadly, the clunky awkwardness of Folkore‘s biggest misfire, the Bon Iver duet “Exile,” is compounded by several more ill-suited Bon Iver cameos on Evermore.)

A slight deviation this time is that several Evermore tracks fit together as a song cycle about the very specific phenomenon of going home for the holidays when you’re between the ages of 18 and 25, and bumping into people you used to know and briefly reliving past lives. In “Dorothea,” she sings from the perspective of a person whose childhood friend has become rich and famous — basically everyone surrounding Taylor Swift — with some unrequited love overtones. (In the line where she sings, “But are you still the same soul I met under the bleachers? Well…,” the ellipses do a lot of heavy lifting.) “Tis The Damn Season” is another “home for the holidays” narrative, with some wonderful writing that captures the edgy melancholy of revisiting your still-near childhood even as it’s rapidly disappearing: “I parkеd my car right between the Methodist / And thе school that used to be ours / The holidays linger like bad perfume / You can run, but only so far.”

Otherwise, I find myself being drawn most on Evermore to the songs that deviate from the usual Dessner-assisted template. That includes the fun “No Body, No Crime,” a classic murder ballad featuring Haim that finds Swift confidently returning to her long-lost country-music writing style. (It also includes a very well chosen Olive Garden reference, for all of you chain-restaurant fans out there.) But my favorite track of all is “Gold Rush,” the sole Jack Antonoff collaboration with a subtle bass thump that I bet could become a major hit with a poppier remix. In the song, Swift calls out an unnamed jerk by pointing out that “at dinner parties I won’t call you out on your contrarian shit.” (This lyric instantly reminded me of Fiona Apple’s “Under The Table” from Fetch The Bolt Cutters, another song about the awfulness of dinner parties. Bless these albums for easing the pain of quarantine by reminding us that gatherings aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.)

Taken together, Folklore and Evermore culminate a fascinating transitional period for Swift that began back in 2017 with Reputation, that maligned but ultimately underrated album that bore the backlash from the mammoth success of 1989. The past three years have been marked by Swift’s evolving feelings about her own fame — hurt, then anger, then acceptance, now calm. Folklore is the best, most assured album of this period, a new benchmark for her as a writer and an encouraging sign that she can flourish outside of the glare of mainstream pop expectations. But for all of its strengths as a well-made sequel, Evermore suggests that it is now time for Swift to move on to a new reimagining of herself. She can keep the curse words, though.

Evermore is out now on Republic Records. Get it here.

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