Album Review: Taylor Swift - 'evermore'
Despite the fact that she is still only 30-years-old, the time frame from the release of Taylor Swift’s self-titled debut to the release of her ninth studio album, “evermore,” is more than double the length of time separating the Beatles’ breakthrough performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and the band’s dissolution. While her youth makes Swift seem as though she should be in her commercial prime, she belongs to a generation older than most of the major chart-toppers of 2020, which makes the latest stage of her musical career all the more logical.
Although it sounds counterintuitive to believe that Swift, an artist capable of performing in stadiums, would be relatively well-situated to weather the storm that is the shutdown of most of physical society, her primary strength, songwriting, remains more than viable. And despite the expedience with which the dramatic departure “folklore” was released, that she would craft a more moody, dark album for her first artistic statement of her 30s was hardly shocking (particularly when her collaborations with the National’s Aaron Dessner and Bon Iver became public knowledge). That “evermore” would come less than five months later was far less predictable, and a more obvious sign of the times.
The brief time frame separating those releases and the lack of major stylistic differences will assuredly make the two be seen as a de facto double album, like Guns N’ Roses’ two-parter “Use Your Illusion” for the streaming generation. In both cases the albums were sold separately and were released in the same year (GNR’s on the same day).
As Swift noted during her one day of album promotion (matching the promotion schedule of “folklore”), the songwriting for her latest was an extension of the sessions which brought her first album of 2020. As a result, “evermore” sounds like the B-sides of an album. And like most B-sides collections, there are songs on this release that sound like they belong on “folklore” and others that are not bad by any means, but are seemingly filler. But even more frustrating are the songs that sound incomplete – songs that have the germ of an interesting idea but which lack the hooks or the production or some other flourishes that keep it from reaching the heights of the original.
The standout track on “evermore” is the opener and debut single, “willow,” which combines the folk instrumentation of the 2020 Swift sound with a refreshingly poppy chorus that may not quite hearken back to “Red,” but at least fits in melodically with the later singles taken from “reputation.”
But the other parts where the album succeeds dig back even further, to her pop-country days. The collaboration with Haim, “no body, no crime,” fits comfortably in the country revenge fantasy genre, owing musically to Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” and lyrically to “Goodbye Earl” by the Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks). And while “long story short” has a maturity to it that may have lacked in the days of “Speak Now,” the song does evoke the same upbeat and wistful sensibilities.
However, outside of these three tracks, there is a sameness that carries over from “folklore.” Even with a song like “ivy,” one of the better of the remaining songs, the pleasant chorus doesn’t veer far off of what the “folklore” track “invisible string” did a few months ago.
The contrast between Swift’s ethereal vocal tone and Justin Vernon’s more muscular delivery is still an effective weapon (even as his performance demonstrates far more range than on the prior album’s “exile”), but the resulting title track “evermore” is too slow and plodding to be especially effective. For every “willow,” the only song on the album that I think could crack a hypothetical Taylor Swift best-of compilation, there are two or three songs like “happiness,” that are technically crafted songs and seem like a credible impersonator trying to capture “folklore” as opposed to a particularly interesting artistic statement.
The primary draw of “folklore” wasn’t that the songs on it were outstanding, though several of them were. It was that the album represented a 180-degree turn, every bit as interesting and unique of a first-listen experience as if Bon Iver were suddenly a major stadium pop act. Conversely, “evermore” fails to take chances. For as divisive as the commercial dance-pop of “Shake It Off,” the abrasive electroclash of “Look What You Made Me Do” or the unrepentant bubblegum of “Me!” were, she was trying something different, just as she did with the entirety of “folklore.”
The songs on “evermore” aren’t as good as those on her previous album, but the larger problem is that the abrupt shock was impossible. It is possible that I will eventually enjoy these songs more, but it is inconceivable that they could be as impactful. The album is worth a listen as a curiosity, and odds and ends collections have certainly been worse, but it is best understood as an epilogue than as a new direction.