Taylor Swift: Evermore – rich alt-rock and richer character studies
Anyone who feels they made insufficient use of 2020’s unexpected glut of spare time is strongly advised to avoid the prologue that Taylor Swift has written to accompany her ninth studio album.
It explains that, having already produced one bestselling, critically-acclaimed album while in isolation from Covid-19 – July’s Folklore – Swift and collaborators including the National’s Aaron Dessner, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, songwriter Jack Antonoff and her boyfriend Joe Alwyn couldn’t stop writing songs.
“It feels like we were standing on the edge of the Folklorian woods and had a choice – to turn and go back or travel further into the forest of this music,” she writes. “We chose to go deeper in.”
The result is another album. Not, it should be noted, a collection of offcuts and demos, but a fully-realised hour-long collection of songs rendered in muted, earthy shades: fingerpicked acoustic guitars, pianos playing tumbling, melancholy figures (the one on Tolerate It vaguely recalls the Smiths’ Asleep), electric guitars that teeter on the brink of sounding overdriven, warm, woozy washes of synthesiser, mandolin.
Evermore effectively continues the job that Folklore started, moving Swift away from mainstream pop into alt-rockier waters. It’s a smoother, less forced transition than it might be for some of her peers.
Swift has already changed tack once in her career – gradually abandoning the glossy Nashville pop of her early albums for something more brash and electronic around the time of 2012’s Red – an early indication of the malleability of her songwriting.
Melodically, at least, there doesn’t seem to have been a particularly dramatic shift. There are songs here that would obviously function as pop bangers were they decked out with EDM synths, Auto-Tune and programmed beats – opener Willow, Gold Rush, Long Story Short – but, equally, they don’t feel like they’re straining at the confines of their tasteful acoustic arrangements.
The real change is in Swift’s lyrical approach. Evermore declines to perform her old trick of writing songs that guarantee social media posts pondering which ex-boyfriend or frenemy they might concern, although you do get a lot of what you might call Swiftian lyrical tropes for your money: the bad-news girlfriend of Blank Space makes a reappearance on Champagne Problems (“she would’ve made such a lovely bride – what a shame she’s fucked in the head”), while the classic behold-my-mental-anguish-as-I-try-to-comprehend-how-incredibly-hot-my-current-partner-is humblebrag informs Gold Rush: “What must it be like to grow up that beautiful?”
Swift is good at character studies. Lovers of gossip might disagree, but the well-drawn portraits of a disenchanted wife on Tolerate It or a distraught recent divorcee on Happiness feel substantially more edifying than the stuff she wrote for 2017’s Reputation, bitterly dressing down former chums for their mysterious transgressions.
Blessed with a particularly luminous tune, Dorothea cleverly flips the old country cliche in which a star tells you their life of fame and luxury is nothing compared to the warm comfort of their old small-town life. Here, the protagonist gazes at a now-famous friend on TV, vainly trying to convince herself that said old friend was happier living the simple life and might return.
And ’Tis the Damn Season offers a neat and rather moving twist on the Christmas song, in which old flames back in town for festive visits to their parents end up in bed together, despite knowing it won’t lead anywhere.
The album’s unifying aesthetic conceals some sub-par songwriting, all charmingly misty atmospherics and not much substance: were it not for the added interest of the fact it’s Taylor Swift duetting with the National’s Matt Berninger, Coney Island would just be pleasantly unmemorable Pitchfork-friendly alt-rock.
A country-rock saga of infidelity leading to two murders, No Body No Crime is fun – in a campy wink to camera, Haim sisters Danielle and Este appear both as backing vocalists and characters in the lyrics – but inconsequential.
It’s unclear where the stylistic shift of Folklore and Evermore is heading, whether it’s a momentary diversion or a path Swift intends to continue down.
“I have no idea what will come next,” she writes in the album’s prologue. Not everything here works, but taken together Folklore and Evermore make a convincing case for Swift’s ability to shift shape and for her songs’ ability to travel between genres: as lockdown overachievements go, it’s pretty impressive.