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11 December 2020

Taylor Swift’s Evermore is Folklore’s darker, colder sister record

Swift’s second album in less than five months bears the same sensitively wrought indie-folk flourishes as its older sibling, but is all the more evocative for it.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

If Folklore, Taylor Swift’s eighth studio album which last week was named Rolling Stone’s album of the year, ushered us into autumn, then Evermore, its “sister record”, plunges us into the depths of winter. Swift’s second album in less than five months – a remarkable schedule for an artist for whom each release is usually a great occasion rolled out once every few years – bears the same sensitively wrought indie-folk flourishes as its older sibling, but is at once darker and all the more evocative for it.

“It feels like we were standing on the edge of the folklorian woods and had a choice: to turn and go back or to travel further into the forest of this music. We chose to wander in,” wrote Swift in a statement accompanying the announcement of Evermore on Thursday. The picture she paints, of a band of adventurers deciding to trek on despite the difficulties which may await them, is apt for the second half of this project: a distinctly collaborative foray into darkness. Aaron Dessner, of revered American indie band the National, returns as Swift’s primary co-writer and producer, alongside Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and William Bowery, the pseudonym of Swift’s boyfriend of four years, Joe Alwyn.

The introspection these musicians have together brought out in Swift’s writing – which bore gems such as “Cardigan” and “Mirrorball” – is, gladly, here to stay. Break-up ballad “Happiness” is a more heartfelt song than one Swift would have written on the same subject matter just a couple of years ago. “There’ll be happiness after you/But there was happiness because of you/Both of these things can be true,” she sings over pared-back synthesiser, her voice glassy. These are awfully simple lyrics, but in sentiment they are distinguished: in just a few lines, Swift acknowledges life’s complications and contradictions. It’s a far cry from the hyperbole she relied on as recently as 2019’s Lover, and a more sophisticated approach to acknowledging love and loss. Crucially, it appreciates nuance, a rare find in pop.

On “Happiness”, flecks of the Cinderella story she once pinned her hopes on remain (lyrics mention “the dress I wore at midnight”). Elsewhere, the fairytale dreams of Swift’s earlier years are redrafted. Piano ballad “Champagne Problems”, co-written with Alwyn, acts as a realist rewrite of Swift’s break-out 2008 hit “Love Story”. This time around, Swift’s character ends the relationship (“Your heart was glass, I dropped it”) and the engagement ring stays in her partner’s pocket. It’s a sadder, more mature take on long-term love, one which appreciates that, sometimes, the happily-ever-after will take in pain along the way.

As on Folklore, the carefully wrought instrumentation on this record uncovers the sensitivity of Swift’s writing, from the subtly lush strings of “Gold Rush” to Dessner’s electric guitar counter melody of “Tis the Damn Season”, which rings out like chimes beneath Swift’s classic breathy vocals. Swift leans into her country roots on “Cowboy Like Me”, a slow ditty about two swindlers who fall in love against a background of “bandits” and “hustling”, and features a guitar riff reminiscent of the opening melody of her debut single, “Tim McGraw”. With an upright bass, harmonica, easy brushed drums and a somewhat surprising appearance from Marcus Mumford on backing vocals, when Swift’s country twang cuts through it is smooth and welcomed. “Forever is the sweetest con,” she sings, with longing.

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Swift has fun with old-town Americana on “No Body, No Crime” too, which begins with police sirens and eerie whispers of “He did it” and features the LA band Haim. The song, which twangs with an organ and lap steel guitar, tells the fictional story of Este Haim, “a friend of mine”, who disappears after she finds out her husband is having an affair. It’s a fun conceit, but the result feels laboured, with an endless “I think he did it but I just can’t prove it” refrain, and little trace of the life, soul and brilliant rhythms Haim bring to their own music. It is one of few missteps on the record.

The song has its tongue in its cheek, but there are shadowy undertones at play here, and throughout Evermore. “Marjorie” is a touching ode to Swift’s late grandmother and follows Folklore’s “Epiphany”, a tribute to her grandfather on the other side of her family, which also sat at track number 13. “I should have asked you questions/I should’ve asked you how to be,” sings Swift, over classic piano and fuzzy synths, eloquently encapsulating the universal regret of losing loved ones with things left unsaid. But Swift fans, aware of her affinity for true crime, have pointed out that the story of this song may be more complicated: “Marjorie” could also refer to Marjorie West, the four-year-old who went missing from Swift’s native Pennsylvania in 1938, and whose story became a great unsolved mystery. Another track, “Dorothea”, the name of Marjorie West’s sister, could be written from the perspective of Marjorie: “Hey, Dorothea, do you ever stop and think about me?” Swift’s vocal warmth and bright piano harmonies offer “Dorothea” a hopeful outlook, though in the spaces between her “oohs” lies a hesitation, too.

Most striking is the final and title track, featuring Bon Iver. Swift’s voice moves into a different realm for this meditative, piano-led epilogue – there’s pain here, but also warmth and tenderness. The song addresses Swift’s struggles with depression with moving frankness: “Hey December/Guess I’m feeling unmoored/Can’t remember/What I used to fight for/I rewind the tape but all it does is pause”. But it is Justin Vernon’s electro-falsetto which raises the track to new heights. For those who were disappointed with Vernon’s distinctly un-Bon Iver-like feature on Folklore, here is the remedy. As Swift and Vernon sing side by side, duelling lines, their voices are at once deftly different, and, eventually, one and the same. It’s a fervent, powerful end to a two-record project which has seen Swift embrace genres and musicians we never expected her to go near. Swift knows it, and with Vernon she proves it: if we want to find a way out of the darkness, we can’t go it alone.