Somehow, as the most psychologically daunting year of our lives refuses to loosen its grip, Taylor Swift continues to create with abandon, relentlessly surprising a fan base that hangs on her every tweet and emoji.
Somehow, the pop monolith has done it almost entirely in isolation, sharing heaps of digital files with her latest songwriting soulmate, The National’s Aaron Dessner (as well as long-favored collaborator Jack Antonoff), and remotely patching together some three-dozen fully realized tracks from a makeshift home studio.
Somehow, she’s polished off two career-redefining projects in five months. And somehow, despite the mastery and universal acclaim of July’s Folklore, its new sister album, Friday’s Evermore, is even stronger.
Released two days before her 31st birthday — with just 16 hours’ notice — Swift’s ninth studio LP is a breathtaking concentration of all that Folklore did so well: The adoptive narratives, the bleeding romanticism, the meticulous wordplay and sparse but wholly affecting production.
It’s all there again, minus much of the woodsiness. Don’t be fooled by the album art; a collection of cottagecore B-sides these 15 tracks are not (plus two coming bonus tracks).
Instead, they are measured ruminations on crumbling, complicated marriages (“happiness,” “tolerate it”), afflictive hometown visits (“‘tis the damn season”) and refusals to harp on lost love, even if an ex refuses to let go (“closure”). It’s all very adult and considered; an HBO mini-series starring Reese Witherspoon could be penned around any of these tracks, as was the case for much of folklore.
But unlike its companion, Evermore touts bonafide pop hooks. The lead single “willow” is a traipsing earworm not unlike Reputation’s surprise hit “Delicate,” perhaps better suited for beach bonfires than a trek through Tennessee forests. “Gold rush,” one of two tracks co-written by Antonoff, is a pulsating sonic cousin of Lorde’s excellent “Green Light” (which Antonoff also co-wrote), complete with a similarly leaping chorus detailing Swift’s reticence to chase after men desired by so many others. Soon after, “no body, no crime,” featuring longtime gal pals HAIM, follows the Carrie Underwood model of taking down a cheater with a catchy refrain and a sprinkle of … what’s that? … murder?!
Unskippable tracks rage on across the hour-long record: “Champagne problems,” co-written by boyfriend Joe Alwyn (under the pseudonym William Bowery) addictively portrays a failed marriage proposal and contains this glorious line: “She would’ve made such a lovely bride, what a shame she’s fucked in the head.” And “coney island,” a wonderfully dark duet with The National’s forever-wistful Matt Berninger, is a lonely waltz down a Brooklyn boardwalk. The merger of Swift’s wispy head voice and Berninger’s bass is sinfully good.
Close listening reveals further surprises: Marcus Mumford, of Mumford & Sons, sings backing vocals on “cowboy like me,” a country-tinged tune about old-fashioned con artists. And “marjorie,” Swift’s ode to the lessons learned from her grandmother, Marjorie Finlay (who died in 2003), includes decades-old recordings of Finlay’s opera singing, as was her profession.
As Dessner and her other new collaborator Justin Vernon of Bon Iver were both more heavily involved in the writing and production of the Evermore songs than Folklore, the difference is felt in mostly unobtrusive flourishes — skittering drum machines (“closure”) and whirling acoustic accompaniments (“dorothea”). The only moment that feels perhaps too heavy-handed comes in the closing title track, a duet with Vernon, where the piano blueprint jarringly shifts for Vernon’s section and the grand call and response that follows. There will be some argument as to whether the passage is experimental magic or they just barely pull it off.
Still, Evermore is undeniable in about a half-dozen exciting ways, most of which defy all unwritten rules handcuffing many of Swift’s constituents. At the top of her game and riding her greatest songwriting wave to date, Swift will write and release what she wants, when she wants — even if it’s sandwiched between the mammoth task of re-recording her first six albums. Through the Folklore and Evermore sessions, Swift has graduated to unraveling exceedingly complex human emotions with precision and devastation. She ascends further into the pantheon of songwriters who consistently deliver despite unimaginable expectations.
For all its mayhem, 2020 has unlocked the best work of her career.
Also, what the hell is her next tour going to look like? Has any other modern pop artist ever hit the road with three in-their-prime albums all untested on the stadium stage (including 2019’s Lover)? How will she build a setlist that isn’t four hours long?
Then again, she’s Taylor Swift. She’ll figure it out. Somehow.