Frankie Mancini / Gavel Media

Taylor Swift’s 'evermore' Reckons With the Past and Finds Solace in the Future

A few days before her birthday, Taylor Swift decided to give a gift instead: evermore, released at midnight on December 10th. The surprise sequel to folklore, which was released earlier this year, evermore continues in the same vein of a mystical magnification of stories she says are “mirrored” and “intersecting.” Swift had spent quarantine surrounded by the “folklorian woods,” as she said in a letter to her fans, and instead of popping the bubble of the fairytale she has encased herself in for months, she instead chose to “travel further into the forest of this music.” And this forest is thick—dense with poetic verses, rich with stories and deep roots that reach down and pull out the most intensely intimate of tales both imaginary and true. 

evermore is a continuation of spellbinding verses and cryptic storylines—the message in a bottle that is washed up on the shore and takes the shattering of glass to uncover. However, this album departs from the young, naive, unrequited love of folklore and crescendos into a confrontational catharsis. It is both a reflective ache for healing and a letting go of ghosts that haunt and push us to the breaking point until all we can do is put pen to paper and write. Maybe that’s how to move on for good, Swift seems to argue, to revisit these moments, to understand and to release—not quietly and politely, but with all the boldness of spite sprinkled throughout the 17 tracks, ranging from verses rife with references to exes to a song dedicated to murder. And still, fourteen years after her first album release, Swift sings with nothing but raw emotion so that each word is heavy with a smile that beams in one song and breaks in the next.

The album begins with “willow,” an upbeat love song that mimics the airy, playful guitar plucks of “invisible string” on folklore. Its music video picks up right where that of “cardigan” left off: Swift sits in her rustic, woodsy home, shimmering gilded light spilling from her piano. She opens the lid, ready to step in and be transported into a realm so beautiful it looks like the backdrop of a ballet. Only this time, she has a golden string to guide her throughout the scenes and eventually to her lover. And it is apropos that Swift knows her way around: as a sister album to folklore, evermore continues the character-driven poetry that Swift writes so well. 

Along with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, new collaborators included HAIM and The National. NPR called evermore’s unique production choices “skittering programming and intricately textured instrumentation,” all chosen with a distinct purpose. For example, the sounds in “closure” that have been jokingly compared to pots and pans are meant to represent the idea that closure is never really clean and uncomplicated—it is clamorous and cluttered. Though these are not words that can describe the other tracks on evermore, it is small details like this that make the album stand out. Another hidden treasure is in the song “marjorie,” an exquisitely beautiful tribute to Swift’s grandmother and one that seems to continue the sentiment of “epiphany” in folklore. At the end of “marjorie,” there is a high operatic sound that Swift has said is her grandmother, Marjorie, singing, altered slightly to be seamlessly woven into the song. 

Though the album has a solemnity about it, more importantly, it is about strength, about self-assurance, about finding it in yourself to become who you were destined to be. Arguably one of Swift’s best bridges is in “tolerate it,” a song about a one-sided relationship—being completely swallowed by it and losing yourself, doing everything you can to get someone’s affection even though it is futile. In the bridge, Swift sings, “You assume I'm fine, but what would you do if I/I break free and leave us in ruins?/Took this dagger in me and removed it?/Gain the weight of you then lose it/Believe me, I could do it.” It is a powerful summoning of courage and self-realization, and she goes on to repeat, “I know my love should be celebrated/But you tolerate it,” a pure and heartbreaking portrayal of a coming-to-consciousness in a relationship.

Although evermore is robust with songs about relationships, it is not just another “breakup album,” something with which Swift’s music has been labeled in the past. As “Miss Americana,” Swift’s life has certainly been tinged with the dark side of fame—with the world watching her grow up, her love life has been scrutinized and stalked, adored and analyzed, coveted and criticized. And no one knows this better than Swift herself. With nine albums, the first being released when she was a curly-haired 16-year-old, Swift is certainly a veteran of the limelight. In a 2016 “73 Questions” interview with Vogue, Swift confessed, "If I could talk to my 19-year-old self, I'd just say, 'hey, you're gonna date just like a normal 20-something should be allowed to, but you're going to be a national lightning rod for slut-shaming.” She has said that it is frustrating to watch as other male artists, such as Ed Sheeran, write just as many songs about various relationships but are not seen as promiscuous and wild.

Now 31, Swift’s life has been, at least superficially, displayed for and dissected by the public, but her two most recent albums seem to be her way of pulling back and instead focusing on giving life to storylines separate from her own. And although folklore and evermore are less autobiographical than her other albums, Swift has said that she feels even closer to them. “There was something different with folklore,” said Swift of the project in a note to her fans. “In making it, I felt less like I was departing and more like I was returning.” In this departure from herself, perhaps Swift felt the freedom to write her most contemplative album series yet.

These two albums seem like the debut of a much more mature Swift, who for the longest time was regarded as America’s sweetheart—the angelic girl next door who would stare wistfully out the window and write songs in her diary. It seems that this was Swift’s chance to gracefully diverge from her former albums. Although her previous seven were certainly charged with emotion, the soft intimacy of these two seems even more powerful. Swift has said that using other characters gave her a sense of freedom and then of closure, a way to be vulnerable that did not sacrifice her privacy, but maintained her beloved songwriting and storytelling. 

“There was a point that I got to as a writer who only wrote very diaristic songs that I felt it was unsustainable for my future moving forward," Swift said in an interview with Apple Music. "It felt like too hot of a microscope ... On my bad days I would feel like I was loading a cannon of clickbait when that’s not what I want for my life."

evermore is not a head-over-heels-in-love album, nor is it the sharp and stinging “screw you” that her 2017 album reputation was. It is both bitter and sweet, and often it is vengeful, continuing in the subtly feminist vein of tracks on folklore such as “mad woman” and “last great american dynasty.” Swift is able to harness female rage in a sophisticated and clever way, slyly slipping it into deceptively simple melodies. “no body, no crime,” a song made in collaboration with the girl band HAIM, is one such piece. Inspired by Swift’s self-proclaimed True Crime obsession, the track is a twangy tale of getting revenge on a cheating husband—by murdering him and burying the evidence. It is almost as though Swift decided to write a reprise to “Better Than Revenge,” but instead hold the man accountable. When the album was first released, “no body, no crime” seemed like the odd one out, far from Swift’s more melancholy melodies of heartbreak and a brazen addition to the quietness of evermore. Vulture’s song review put it bluntly: “Taylor Swift’s Long-Overdue Haim Collab Tries to Be Cold-Blooded But Is Mostly Just Cold.” It is nothing like other classic country breakup songs, such as Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” and the Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl.” These are “the sort of thing you sing along to, with abandon, a few shots into a post-split night out with friends,” according to the article.

However, evermore is not the typical album. With poise and precision, Swift has stripped down her witty lyrics until they are no longer sung through gritted teeth but with an open mouth, many through a wave of anger that has since boiled and is now a cold, clear, and chillingly calm rage. Of course, it is not all cruel and cutthroat. There is some humor, outrageous gossip, and references to the HAIM girls’ love for Olive Garden. But in more ways than one, evermore is Swift’s warning that she is not to be messed with—and no longer will she sugarcoat and shield what ought to be exposed.

While Swift’s love life has been analyzed time and again, it is disheartening that people have so easily put a sweeping assumption on who she is. Many have thought her to not only date too many men and not be able to keep them, but for many years, she was found to be annoying, too feminine and frivolous, too mainstream. She was called a snake and close to canceled after a feud with Kanye West over his song “Famous,” a saga that eventually led to her fiery comeback album reputation. Yet after folklore and evermore were released—and listeners were blown away by the songwriting—many people on social media posted apologies to Swift and fans, citing their hatred for her as internalized misogyny. Many could not find a reason they disliked her other than wanting to stray from the norm. 

Swift speaks from experience—and though hers is extremely privileged compared to many others, it is still an important piece of the female narrative, an experience worthy of being heard, and one that many women have related to through music. In her documentary, ‘Miss Americana,’ Swift opened up about her sexual assault, struggles with an eating disorder, pressure from others to stay quiet on political matters, and the subsequent pushback to stay politically active. Her battle with systemic misogyny and sexism is an overarching theme that runs through the documentary. She has gone through so many evolutions and revisions of her brand, her music, and in turn, herself—but this time, the change came more organically and stuck around for not one, but two albums. “Past me, I want to tell you not to get lost in these petty things/Your nemeses/Will defeat themselves before you get the chance to swing,” sings Swift in “long story short.” With verses that are more about batting internal demons than fighting others’, the lyrics are heavy with sadness but also forgiveness and healing. They emulate that final decision to put yourself first —a relief like a splitting headache that subsides, like a rough storm that finally breaks. 

“You haven’t met the new me yet,” sings Swift in her song “happiness.” She sings of reinvention, of facing change. But even with this, there is the embracing of an old and new Taylor Swift, of who she is and has been to all of us throughout the years—of what she has learned and what the world has learned from her music. Swift goes on to sing, “There is a glorious sunrise/Dappled with the flickers of light...Oh, leave it all behind/Leave it all behind/And there is happiness.” Maybe it’s not about shaming a past self or sprinting toward who we want to become. Even if it’s not the answer we’re all looking for, perhaps living in the moment, and leaving it at that, is the best closure of all.

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