In “Willow,” the opening track of Taylor Swift’s second surprise album in 2020, Evermore, she declares her intention to “come back stronger like a 90s trend.” It’s one of a number of gleeful “Swiftisms” to peek above the parapet on the artist’s latest release, as playfully clunky one-line metaphors and wordplay references are interwoven into and gently undercut the more austere tone struck by the songwriter’s consistently folksy lyricism. This new album, released just ahead of Swift’s 31st birthday, wends the same woodland path as its summer predecessor, but there’s a casualness and a sense of play to Evermore that softens its edges and indicates an artist settling into her groove. This folk-pop aesthetic suits Swift’s knack for yearning balladry and dramatic moments, so it’s a pleasure to hear her stretch those muscles and have a blast testing the limits of that established mould.
Swift surrounds herself with the same roster of talent once again on Evermore. The National guitarist Aaron Dessner takes the lead on production, as the cavernous, melancholic tendencies of his day job give that affective, elegiac edge to Swift’s open-hearted, plain-speaking pop poetics. His fingerprints are all over the resonant, lonely guitar line that backs the singer’s vocal on “Tis the Damn Season,” a lovely track about returning to old loves and hometowns, or the wistful piano meander of “Dorothea.” Dessner even brings in the rest of his Brooklyn-based rock outfit for the weather-worn “Coney Island.” Swift’s light soprano vocal dances in and out of singer Matt Berninger’s gravelly baritone, trading lines of longing and grief (and another cute Swiftism: “We were like the mall before the internet / It was the one place to be”) as his band’s fluent, fiddly musicianship ebbs, builds and recedes beneath.
Other characters from the Folklore cast and beyond drop in for brief but irrepressibly enjoyable appearances. Bleachers frontman Jack Antonoff only takes production and co-writing duties on one track, configuring the pacy piano and shimmering textures of third track “Gold Rush” that tilt into a sweeping key-shift on the cinematic, irrepressible chorus. The Haim sisters lend a husky backing vocal that plays like an accusatory Greek chorus on “No Body, No Crime,” a delirious revenge-country stomper in the Carrie Underwood vein shot through with vindicated female solidarity. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver arrives late on the closing title track, deploying his synthesised falsetto to ethereal effect against a stunning multi-movement Swift-led ballad. Even sort-of-famous actor boyfriend Joe Alwyn lends his pen to the lyrics of a clutch of songs again under his William Bowery moniker, and there’s playfulness and humility in his choice to remain anonymous even now with the cat so entirely out of the bag.
As Swift consolidates this timeless but fresh palette of acoustic guitars, pianos, strings, banjos and beyond, there’s an assurance that provides consistency across Evermore. This does mean that some tracks inevitably diminish into the background — songs like “Tolerate It,” “Happiness” and “Ivy” are lovely but of a sonic piece. Though they boast considered, earnest lyrical turns from Swift, it is only inevitable that an hour-long work will lose some of its creative steam, even when all involved are still working to such a high standard.
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The album’s standouts, though, are superlative. Nothing reaches the stunning highs of Folklore’s “Exile,” “August” or “Mirrorball,” butEvermore’s finest cuts take that sturdy sonic assurance forward into dynamic, playful territory. There’s a romantic urgency to the lightly synthy popper ‘Long Story Short,” as Swift sings “Now I’m all about you” with joyful abandon. Folklore’s penchant for character-driven storytelling in which Swift steps outside of herself remains on the delicate “Champagne Problems,” which details the emotional fallout of a rejected proposal, and in the pick-up truck love story on “Cowboy Like Me.” This shedding of ego means that the power in the moments Swift allows herself to bleed through is earth-shaking. The shimmering “Marjorie” reaches back to the memory of the artist’s late grandmother, and the aforementioned “Long Story Short” reads like an ode to the love Swift has found with Alwyn.
Penultimate track “Closure” serves similarly to Folklore’s “Peace” in its measured observance of a long-ended relationship and its cuttingly personal and heartbreaking lyrics — “I’m fine with my spite / and my beers and my candles / I can feel you smoothing me over.” But “Closure” is also one of the most musically sophisticated tracks on Evermore, playing twinkling pianos off against clanking electronic drumbeats and a growling modulated backing vocal simmering below the surface — it’s Swift, Dessner and their collaborators working at their peak, and it bristles with the sheer delight of making fun, interesting, beautiful music with your buddies.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, in its restrictions on normal life and the insurmountable toll of suffering and death, it’s that we must hold on to what brings joy. If a person, an activity or a place makes you happy and you have the opportunity to appreciate it, then you should do so as often as you feasibly can. Returning to the same pop-folk aesthetic with another hour-long record only six months since the last, Swift shows us how to live this lesson. In my review of Folklore, I said that album was Swift’s best shot at immortality — a singular moment of inspiration, ingenuity and authenticity. Thanks to Evermore, it becomes less a moment and more a continuing process — as life is — in which Swift returns to the creative wells and to the people with which she feels truest to herself and continues to mine. It’s indulgent. So what? To dedicate oneself continuously to happiness, creativity, curiosity and communality is surely a greater legacy anyway.
Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a cultural journalist from Doncaster, England. He now lives in South London, where he drinks copious amounts of ginger beer.