Just five months after the surprising, but endlessly gratifying change of scenery Taylor Swift delivered with her eighth album Folklore, Taylor has doubled down on her move into acoustic folk with a full second album, Evermore, produced out of the same artistic moment. However, this is not a mere B-sides collection or assemblage of leftovers, rather, Swift and her collaborators continuing to mine the same rich vein to almost equally stunning effect, resulting in another whole hour of material.
It’s unheard of for any two Taylor Swift albums to sound as similar to one another as Folklore and Evermore, with Swift historically determined to forge ever onwards into new and traditionally more heavily produced terrain. However, with Folklore having been her most consistent album to date, Taylor really does seem to have found her milieu with this campfire-style and recreates it with the same attention to quality on her follow up.
Every track but one is produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, expanding upon their collaboration from Folklore, with rustic and rootsy timbres to the guitars, piano and tambourines. The keyboards and drum machine of Taylor’s past pop work are still present, but with a delicate and tasteful implementation that adds to the richly enveloping blankets of sound on each track. The outlying, non-Dessner track is “gold rush”, which is instead produced by previous Swift collaborator Jack Antonoff, and is easily the most highly-produced song here, breezing into the track-list with glorious sweeping strings, choral backing vocals and arpeggiated hushes leading into the chorus. The song itself is perhaps the most on the nose expression of the manner in which Taylor’s delicate romantic tableaux interact with this Americana style, with “gold rush” being a metaphor for loving someone so highly sought after by others, and feeling inundated with rivals for their affection.
Throughout the album, as with Folklore, each of the fifteen tracks here comprise a snapshot of a relationship, in some cases describing by her own experiences, in others, a fictional tale of love and loss. The first leg of the album is perhaps a little wanting as far as highlights go, unlike Folklore, which hit you with quality immediately out of the gate. Despite its rather laboured metaphors, the album’s single “willow” serves as an effective opener, with its blossoming guitar plucking and an ascending vocal melody appropriate to an introduction.
The first real and genuine highlight comes in the form of “tolerate it”, an absolutely devastating ballad, portraying a character’s feelings of insecurity within a relationship, devoted to her partner but unsure they reciprocated. From there on the album picks up with one sterling track after another. The following track “no body no crime” featuring HAIM, is the most self-consciously country ballad, a wry and macabre tale of murder and infidelity that leavens the tone midstream with a more cartoonish tone.
Some moments do feel like direct personal comments on her own life, and sometimes her public image. The most overt in this latter capacity is “long story short”, where she dissects and dismisses her drama fuelled past in the public eye, with a pointedly poppy melody and time signature, but most tracks perform such self-commentary more covertly. “happiness” in particular is a beautiful and subtle combination of the personal and the public, blurring the lines between her relationship to the world and her character’s relationship to her partner. Even taken at face value as a breakup song, it’s magnificent, as she sings of moving on and wishing her ex well, despite notes of bitterness and regret spilling out into the lyrics. It’s a tangled web of emotion that she observes and articulates superbly: “no one teaches you what to do when a good man hurts you”.
Perhaps the most directly personal moment on the album though is “marjorie”, a tender tribute to her grandmother and her homespun wisdom. The track’s delicate vermona pulse and tasteful violin give the track a gloss and chill that keeps the song from feeling too maudlin, but also feels a little too guarded, preventing it from having the same emotional impact as say, “Soon You’ll Get Better” from Lover. Despite the deceptively layered instrumentation throughout though, there are very few moments like this one that feel even the tiniest bit overproduced.
Perhaps little suggests how personal an album Evermore is more than the co-song-writing credits given to William Bowery (a.k.a. Joe Alwyn), Swift’s partner, on the songs “champagne problems”, “coney island” and the closing title track, which reunites Swift with Bon Iver as something of a grand finale. However, her duet with singer Justin Vernon here doesn’t go over nearly as well as it did with him on “exile”. Everything else about the track is gorgeous, but the multi-tracking of his vocals is honestly kind of horrendous. It’s only when the other members of The National appear on “coney island” that we get a proper heir to that gem, Taylor having much better chemistry with singer Matt Berninger than she does with Vernon this time around. Marcus Mumford also provides some backup accompaniment that almost serves as a duet, playing the match to Taylor’s introspective gold-digging rogue on the song “cowboy like me”.
Taylor’s repetition of her success in this style all but confirms this as a legitimate and potentially permanent move for her. I could easily see Taylor doing this for the next twenty years, and emerging as a beloved grand-dame of the American indie scene. Such an outcome is all but assured if the music stays as good as this. It’s possible that the bright lights of the pop scene will lure her back one day, but with Swift now in her thirties, and a pervasive “I’m so done with all that” tone throughout her last two records, it seems unlikely.
Much as I love a huge amount of her material from the 1989—Lover era, and the mainstream pop landscape has yet to truly deliver an artist capable of filling her shoes, I could hardly be happier with where she is now or the work she’s offering us. At this stage in her career, this is where she needs to be and she knows it. Just as she finally knows too, that her genuine gift for song-writing and heavenly vocals are more than enough to elevate her to the American pantheon, regardless of those who will hang onto past grudges, and both are displayed more nakedly than ever in this context.