Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Taylor Swift evermore

Once upon a time, Taylor Swift album-release cycles moved like clockwork. She was a machine. Once every two years — the even-numbered years — Swift would come out with a bright, noisy, immaculately-crafted new album. She was Ms. November, and she never fucked us over. (Really, she was usually Ms. Late October, but I like my stupid indie rock joke too much to take it out.) When Swift came out with 1989 and became the biggest star in the world, she had to interrupt that schedule, and that every-two-years rhythm went all out of joint. Reputation and Lover both arrived on their own timetables, detached from the routine that was once so dependable.

Earlier this year, out of the clear blue sky, Swift released her quarantine album folklore with less than one day’s advance notice. This was a lovely pandemic-era surprise, but it also meant that Swift dropped the most autumnal album of her career dead in the middle of the summer. Swift made her grand return to the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with a song called “cardigan,” and she did it in August, a time when only Alaskans and psychopaths wear cardigans. With that in mind, Swift’s new album evermore, her second in five months, feels like a temporal correction. In evermore, Swift has made a full-on winter album — a Christmas album, even — and she’s made sure that it arrives at exactly the right moment.

Thirteen years ago, Swift released The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection, a Christmas EP that you could only buy at Target. She sang “White Christmas” and “Last Christmas” and a couple of originals with the word “Christmas” in their titles. (Up until “Shake It Off,” I maintained that Swift’s version of “Santa Baby” was the only bad song that she had ever released.) evermore isn’t Christmas music the way that The Taylor Swift Holiday Collection is Christmas music. Instead, it’s Christmas music the same way that Joni Mitchell’s “River” is Christmas music — a series of short stories about heartbreak and romance and longing, sometimes set against snowy backdrops. On “’tis the damn season,” Swift’s protagonist, home for the holidays, ends up in a quick fling with an ex. On “champagne problems,” her narrator, who’s just said no to a marriage proposal, says, “Soon they’ll have the nerve to deck the halls that we once walked through.” “Hey, December,” Swift sings on the title track.” “Guess I’m feeling unmoored.” (Same.) All throughout, seasonal depression looms lyrically large.

Musically, too, evermore is a blanket album, a fireplace album. On folklore, it was fascinating to hear the tension between Swift’s bright, direct pop melodies and the murky acoustic orchestration that the National’s Aaron Dessner layered over them. Even when she was at her softest, you could never quite forget that the Taylor Swift of folklore was still Taylor Swift, the planet-conquering pop titan. On evermore, she’s gone even smaller. It’s a soft, meditative, consciously quiet album. This time around, she’s not really writing pop songs and presenting them in the clothing of NPR-style indie. Instead, she’s just straight-up writing NPR-indie songs. It’s a small but crucial distinction.

More than folklore, evermore is Taylor Swift’s version of a National album — and not just because the entire National, Matt Berninger included, step in as her backing band on “coney island.” (“coney island” is the dourest moment on evermore — the 2020 equivalent to the moment that the guy from Snow Patrol showed up on Red.) These days, Taylor Swift is so devoted to the sound of early-’10s Instagram-folk that she put Justin Vernon’s guitar and Marcus Mumford’s backing vocals on the same song.

Many of the best songs from folklore — new-wave sighs like “mirrorball” and “my tears ricochet” — were the ones that Swift made with longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff. On evermore, the balance has shifted. Antonoff co-wrote two songs on evermore, but his touch is really only evident on the soft, twinkling propulsion of “gold rush,” the one song that he co-produced. On every other song, Aaron Dessner produces. (Swift also co-produced much of the record, as she often does.)

Back in the day, when Swift was regularly making bangers with Max Martin, Antonoff was the one working with Swift on the more stripped-down, personal songs. Now, we only get a slight touch of the neon ’80s boom that Swift once loved so much. Instead, Swift has adjusted her voice to the delicate strings-and-guitars interplay that’s always been the National’s sonic signature. Even the biggest, most triumphant moments on evermore sound smothered and sedated. Unless she gives them serious sonic makeovers, it’s hard to imagine Swift ever singing any of the songs on evermore in a packed stadium. (It’s also hard to imagine anyone doing anything in a packed stadium, but that’s a whole other story.)

It’s kind of funny that Swift was able to stop the world yesterday with the news of another album of soft-focus lullabies. Like folklore before it, evermore is an album of subtle growers and atmospheric vibes. You wouldn’t think this style would lend itself to a splashy surprise release, but you would be wrong. With a couple of tweets, Swift swiftly dashed any chance that Kid Cudi or Jack Harlow might have a #1 debut next week. (Back in late November, Paul McCartney pushed his own album-release date back a week. I think Swift tipped him off, but I just can’t prove it.) With folklore, Swift made a legitimate smash, one of the biggest albums of the year. But evermore isn’t a quickie cash-in sequel to a big success. Instead, it’s another step on a long artistic journey. It’s just one that arrived a whole lot earlier than anyone thought.

Taylor Swift has written some of this century’s dizziest, most immediate pop songs, and I’ve struggled a bit with the idea of her leaving that behind, switching instead to sepia-toned middlebrow singer-songwriter music. But she’s always been great at that, too, and it’s always been a crucial component of what she does. Aaron Dessner’s production style doesn’t always highlight Swift’s melodies as much as I’d like, but it’s great for her lyrics, and she’s really written some bars on this one. As a songwriter, Swift is famous for alluding to her own public persona. There’s precious little of that on evermore. Instead, a whole lot of this album is Taylor Swift doing observational fiction. She’s good at it, too.

As with folklore, we get a couple of songs with recurring characters, and Swift sings about romantic relationships from a few different perspectives. I love the specificity of “’tis the damn season,” with its narrator propositioning a mid-winter hookup: “I’m staying at my parents’ house, and the road not taken looks real good now.” Swift’s narrator lives in Los Angeles, and she’s trying to make a name for herself, but she’s ambivalent about the life that she’s chosen: “I’ll go back to LA and the so-called friends who’ll write books about me if I ever make it/ And wonder about the only soul who can tell which smiles I’m faking.” Later on, on “dorothea,” that narrator’s ex wonders about her, only ever encountering her on a “tiny screen.” (There’s already speculation that those two songs make up a queer love story, and speculation like that is a crucial part of the Taylor Swift album-release experience.)

Elsewhere, Swift takes on other narratives in the same loving, exacting detail. Her narrator on “champagne problems,” the person who sadly declines a marriage proposal, sings the whole thing in the second person, her heart breaking for the person whose heart she’s just broken: “You had a speech, you’re speechless/ Love slipped beyond your reaches/ And I couldn’t give a reason/ Champagne problems.” On “tolerate it,” she’s the devoted half of an unbalanced relationship, stuck on this person who barely seems to like her: “I know my love should be celebrated/ But you tolerate it.” Best of all is “no body, no crime,” the willfully silly murder narrative that works as a take on the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” model. It’s the most country thing that Swift has done in years, even if her Pistol Annies are the HAIM sisters. (Shout out to Este Haim, a good enough sport to sing backup on a song that envisions her own grisly death.)

But Swift knows that the biggest story of every Taylor Swift album is the story of Taylor Swift herself. Swift’s boyfriend, the actor Joe Alwyn, co-wrote three songs under his William Bowery alias, and plenty of songs seem to be about their relationship. She also alludes to the depths of her Kanye West feud — wow, look at how that turned out — and to the serenity that she’s found in the absence of the whirlwind: “We live in peace/ But if someone comes at us, this time, I’m ready.” Also, I choose to interpret the line “motion capture put me in a bad light” as a reference to when Swift was in the movie Cats.

One of the most affecting songs on evermore isn’t fiction or famous-person commentary. Instead, it’s “marjorie,” Swift’s ode to her late grandmother, an opera singer who encouraged Swift’s music career and then died before that career started. Over a soft, reassuring synth-thump, Swift ruminates on the kind of loss and regret that you can only really feel when someone dies: “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.” Even in the credits, Swift pays moving tribute; the backing singers are listed as Justin Vernon and Marjorie Finlay. I love that.

The other evermore song that just kills me is “happiness.” That one might be fiction, and it might not; that’s not for us to know. Instead, it’s universal. Swift’s narrator is mid-breakup, contending with the idea that there’s no good guy and no bad guy. She’s been hurt, and she’s hurt someone. She’s trying to console someone else, and she’s trying to console herself, too: “There’ll be happiness after you/ But there was happiness because of you/ Both of these things can be true/ There is happiness.” Behind her synths and guitars and pianos build from a soft drone to a soaring tingle. It’s a masterful piece of recording and songwriting — an all-time top-10 Taylor Swift song, and maybe also the best National song since “Terrible Love.”

This is Taylor Swift’s superpower: She can take small and tender and personal songs and make make them sound huge. The indie aesthetic that she’s using on folklore and evermore is one more way for her to do that. With these records, Swift has challenged herself, and she’s risen to meet that challenge. Like folklore, evermore is an expert piece of restorative old-school singer-songwriter music. Swift has stepped into a new lane, and she has conquered it. I hope that Taylor Swift doesn’t keep making soft, prestige-y dinner-party music forever. But if she does — or if she goes even smaller and gets, like, Phil Elverum to produce a record — I know she’ll still find a way to make it resonate. She hasn’t fucked us over yet.

evermore is out now on Republic Records.

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