It’s been a long, dreadful year; a year without the comforts of plans and certainty, without the rejuvenating effects of carefree friend gatherings, of late nights closing out favorite bars, of holidays basking in the love of family. Shaken loose from norms and rituals that gird us in any other year, our minds drifted elsewhere, deeper into history; into the alternate realities of fiction in video games, comics, film, and television; into the autumnal worlds created by sad songs like Sufjan Stevens’s “The Ascension,” Tame Impala’s “Lost In Yesterday,” and Taylor Swift’s “cardigan.” Coping has been a tall order, even for the people who make the art we use to cope. Four months after the July surprise release of Taylor Swift’s folklore, it’s apparent that the album was an exercise in creating some distance between the singer-songwriter and her lyrics. We used to parse Swift’s songs for clues about where her mind was and how her life was going, and trace the lines between “Bad Blood” and “Delicate” and “The Man” and the real-life circumstances that seemed to inform them. We got too presumptuous, and she must’ve grown tired of it, such that it was a shock to hear that the last album’s spate of downcast breakup songs weren’t postmortems on leaving her current beau Joe Alwyn (and that, what’s more, he’d pitched in a few ideas that made it onto the record under the alias William Bowery). Folklore was just what the title suggested it was: an appraisal of the narratives we accept to be the truths informing the way things are and, in songs like “mad woman” and “the last great american dynasty,” a question of why we foist simplistic narratives on complicated women.
As an extension of the themes and sounds of folklore, evermore, the year’s second surprise Taylor Swift album, expresses these interests more comfortably, creating more stories with less interest in revealing unforeseen truths about the songwriter. Here, our narrator buzzes in and out of the lives of couples in dire straits, catching them at some crucial point of no return and mapping the precarious road out. “Dorothea” revolves around the question of whether or not fame has gone to the head of a southern belle; “‘tis the damn season” zips over into her perspective as she returns home for the holidays, which “linger like bad perfume,” where we learn that carving out time for romantic interests is something of a struggle, but not for the reasons our other protagonist suspected. Notoriety is a gilded cage for her, where she’s watched and analyzed and criticized by people who see opportunity in her acquaintance. Suddenly, it makes sense that she would be hard to reach. In “cowboy like me,” high-society scammers meet their match in each other and rejoice in having someone around who’s able to see through the posturing. “Ivy” compares the rush of a growing marital affair to the methodical skyward advance of climbing plants. Like Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away” or Kate Bush’s “The Wedding List,” “no body, no crime” is a murder ballad you don’t see coming until the long-suffering female protagonist gets away in the end.
As folklore did, these stories ask us to consider what motivates women when they act desperately against their interests, suggesting, as Swift has in songs like “Blank Space” and “I Did Something Bad,” that it’s always knottier than “She went crazy.” It’s a clever way to reframe her own personal mythology, that of the beloved starlet on the mend from a bad hit to her fame and self-esteem, retold so succinctly in “long story short” as to suggest she’s tired of telling it: “Pushed from the precipice / Climbed right back up the cliff / Long story short, I survived.” What’s true of Swift is true of her subjects. Push them, if you dare, and you find out what they’re made of. The second album complements the first; folklore is a descent into bad vibes that begins on a somewhat chipper note with “the 1,” a song about trying to improve your life by changing up routines, and ends in the brokenness and despair of “hoax.” Here, we get through the nagging dissatisfaction of “tolerate it,” the holiday breakup drama of “champagne problems,” and the mirthful parting ways of “happiness,” and we land on “evermore,” the most uplifting tune in both batches — a song where we’re not out of the woods yet, but realizing that nothing lasts forever and neither do bad times, the Swiftian happy ending folklore jarringly held back.
The two albums also share utility players in Jack Antonoff, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and the National’s Aaron Dessner, and in its more streamlined approach to folk-pop (William Bowery also returns with three co-writing credits and played piano on the title track); absent notably ’90s sounding indie-rock gestures like folklore’s “mirrorball” and “august,” evermore feels like a concerted effort at fleshing out the connected universe between Big Red Machine, I Am Easy to Find, and i, i. “Long Story Short” carries the brisk pace and dour sonics of a National song, but Swift’s clear tone and lilting melodies edge the sound closer to pure pop than singer Matt Berninger and the Dessners seem interested in treading. The difference between the note-perfect grace of Swift’s voice and Berninger’s glum baritone is played up brilliantly in the duet “coney island”; you hear it and you start to wonder if the low end notes on these albums are another bout of trying out other singer-songwriters’ wares. “Closure” dabbles in the robot vocals and glitchy electronics of recent Bon Iver albums but stops short of making the listener dig through dense production for meaning and melody as Vernon sometimes does.
You could argue that these are shrewd aesthetic choices aimed at sustaining a pop star’s cool, as it was so argued when Taylor Swift’s music grew EDM synths and trap drums throughout the 2010s, but to do so takes the music of Bon Iver and the National out of their historical moorings and suggests something was invented in those albums rather than refined and adapted. American music is a mansion with many rooms that are always under renovation. New owners filter in and make additions, but the façade and building materials never change. The lush acoustics and electronic accents here call back as much to recent records by its backing players as it does to the late aughts fedora folk of Mumford & Sons — note that Marcus acts as Cowboy #2 on “cowboy like me” — and the subtly blippy pop of late ’90s gems like Fiona Apple’s “On the Bound” and Beth Orton’s “Central Reservation.” This is saying nothing of Swift’s own history as country radio royalty, which the pointed story songs on evermore recall the most.
The most important question — will she stick around a little longer and flesh this sound out as she’s now made two of the best albums of her career, with evermore evening out the highs and occasional lows of folklore for a smoother listen, or will she acquire a taste for, say, 100 Gecs beats in two years and buzz off again? — is unanswered. For now, our quarantine bard-in-residence has delivered an album in part about being sad at home over the holidays just in time for winter break. It’s time to give “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” a rest.
*A version of this article appears in the December 21, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!