To me, Taylor Swift hasn’t improved as a songwriter. She’s merely evolved. Her pivot to folk and piano-laden ballads doesn’t signal some attempt at “high-brow art.” The recent change-of-pace is simply another chapter for one of the biggest singer-songwriters in modern history.
Truth is, folklore and evermore aren’t the first albums where Taylor has written about the spiritual connection between people, places and things. They also aren’t the first time she’s been descriptive in her ability to tell an emotionally-elevated story. Both albums simply represent a different avenue in which to tell these whimsical tales.
To be quite honest, the concept of folklore was no more surprising than Taylor’s aesthetic alteration on reputation. Quarantine has allowed artists to expand their minds and discover inspiration outside of what is immediately in front of them. For Taylor, writing stories about doomed love triangles and great American dynasties was her correct course of action.
On evermore, Taylor once again connects with Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff to create an experience that feels just as intimate and profound as folklore. Released on the eve of winter back in December, evermore finds Taylor sharpening her woodsy landscape with furnished color, cozy flannels, and fogged-up windshields.
The storylines for her newest installment are far more esoteric than past endeavors. The album, while sonically subdued and pensive, is strikingly radiant when it comes to developing characters, bygone eras, and hopeful futures. “happiness,” which is honestly one of my favorite Taylor songs to date, sounds like gentle strokes from a paint brush; a canvas brought to life by Taylor’s ability to find joy in even the worst aspects of human connection (“There’ll be happiness after you/”But there was happiness because of you”). Her witty attention to detail is magnificent, as lyrics such as, “Tell me, when did your winning smile begin to look like a smirk?” call back songs like “Begin Again,” where seemingly minute idiosyncrasies can increase the emotion of a vivid portrait.
Through her songwriting evolution, Taylor has unveiled an oddly nostalgic sense of humor. On the opener “willow,” Taylor uses the lyrics “I came back stronger than a 90s trend” to secure agency in an uncompromising relationship. Later on, she croons, “The holiday lingers like a bad perfume,” a line that dichotomizes the cozy feeling from the album’s cover and instrumentals.
There’s a level of unpredictability on evermore that is somehow just as prevalent as the unanticipated allure of folklore. She revisits her country roots occasionally, but only to spin narratives that are reminiscent of some classic western novel. The Danielle Haim-assisted “no body, no crime” is a tightly-woven epic about a missing girl and her cheating boyfriend. The track reminds me of Vampire Weekend’s recent venture into this country/western soundscape. It’s interesting how a lot of alternative pop acts are going in this direction.
The album’s worst moments are when collaborators take the vocal spotlight from Taylor. Her internal questioning on “coney island” is tentatively intriguing, but the sorrowful introspection is upended by an awkward Matt Berninger verse. His vocals are mixed high enough where it masks the soft guitar flourishes and intimacy of the overall track. Justin Vernon’s passage on the title track is equally hackneyed, as an abrupt instrumental switch-up curtails what could have been an effectively reserved finale.
Taylor’s voice in comparison wafts above these instrumentals with the touch of a light breeze, while her mystical songwriting strikes listeners like the dagger she used in the “Blank Space” video. evermore is not a perfect album, nor is it Taylor’s best. It does, however, offer a fascinating scripture baked in conceptual storytelling that straddles the line between realism and fairy-tale. In that regard, it’s kind of like many other Taylor albums. It’s just part of her evolution.