Review: Taylor Swift’s surprise LP ‘Evermore’ is more — and less — ‘Folklore’
Call it “Use Your Seclusion II.”
Less than five months after Taylor Swift dropped “Folklore” — the blockbuster made-in-quarantine album that reintroduced this country-turned-pop star as an introspective indie balladeer — she’s returned with “Evermore,” which she calls the earlier set’s “sister record” and which came out with equally little warning on Thursday night.
Like “Folklore,” the new set of 15 songs (17 if you splurge for the deluxe physical edition) was created during the COVID-19 pandemic with a crew of musicians led by Aaron Dessner of the National; like “Folklore,” “Evermore” mines an atmospheric, slightly twee chamber-rock sound defined by breathy vocals and hand-played instruments of both the acoustic and electronic variety.
Five women take the top 3 spots, with Taylor Swift’s quarantine album leading our year’s best.
“To put it plainly, we just couldn’t stop writing songs,” Swift wrote Thursday morning in an Instagram post announcing the existence of the new album and of a music video for the lead track, “Willow.”
Joining the tea party this time are the sisters of Haim, several of Dessner’s National bandmates and Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, along with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who appeared on “Folklore” but plays a larger role this time as duet vocalist and sideman.
Given its scale and especially its secrecy — at this point, Swift’s NDA game is approaching Beyoncé’s level — it’s fair to think of the sprawling “Folklore”/“Evermore” project as a superstar flex along the lines of Guns N’ Roses’ 1991 “Use Your Illusion” two-fer or Shakira’s “Fijación Oral” and “Oral Fixation” from 2005. (That “Evermore”’s release closely follows “Folklore”’s numerous Grammy nominations, including for album of the year, only deepens the impression that Swift is here to win.)
Yet the singer’s companion LPs also showcase her prodigious songwriting talent at a moment when COVID has kept musicians off the stages that normally define their lives.
Has any A-list act utilized her involuntary time at home more fruitfully than Swift has?
What distinguishes “Folklore” from “Evermore,” of course, was the element of surprise — not in how the albums appeared (which shocked fans and industry insiders alike in both cases), but in the stylistic shift “Folklore” embodied. By downsizing her music, Swift’s first 2020 record obliged listeners to reconsider the skills of a master spectacle-maker; “Folklore,” with its many tunes about characters both real and imagined, also asked us to detach Swift’s songs from the particulars of her highly scrutinized personal life.
“Evermore,” in a first for Swift, simply repeats its predecessor’s trick, which means the new album’s tunes must stand on their own.
And not all of them are up to the standard she set on “Folklore.”
There are some incredible songs here, none more impressive than “Tolerate It,” a devastating account of a loving wife who no longer interests her husband; “Gold Rush,” about the torments of being in a relationship with a famous person; and “Champagne Problems,” which play-by-plays a rebuffed engagement offer with so much empathy that neither character ends up as the bad guy. (Interestingly, Swift wrote “Champagne Problems” with her boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, working in his alter ego as William Bowery.)
“No Body, No Crime,” which features vocals from Danielle and Este Haim, evokes the Chicks and Shania Twain as it unspools a daffy-vengeful whodunit yarn about infidelity and murder. “Dorothea” and “’Tis the Damn Season” star the same central figure: a Hollywood hopeful who leaves behind her sleepy hometown only to return at Christmastime, when she temporarily rekindles an old romance.
“You could call me ‘babe’ for the weekend,” she tells the guy, which could just about break your heart.
Then there’s “Closure,” a wild industrial-folk number with Nine Inch Nails-style drums in which the narrator lays into an ex who can’t stand the idea that she’s still mad at him:
Don’t treat me like
Some situation that needs to be handled
I’m fine with my spite and my tears
And my beers and my candles
“My beers and my candles”! Easily a top 10 lyric for 2020.
Yet too many of the remaining songs on “Evermore” feel like leftovers from “Folklore,” with recycled vocal cadences and melodic phrases or lyrical scenarios that seem unfinished, as in “Willow” and the pretty but aimless “Ivy.” The National’s guttural-voiced Matt Berninger joins Swift for a ghastly duet called “Coney Island” that tries and fails to find a middle ground between their styles.
And although you have to love the concept for “Cowboy Like Me,” about a pair of grifters who fall for each other on the job, the ersatz Lana Del Rey folk-rock arrangement (with Mumford on backing vocals) never gets up and goes anywhere.
“Evermore” closes with the title track, a callback to one of “Folklore’s” high points — the juicily emotional Bon Iver duet “Exile” — with another slow-motion piano ballad featuring Vernon’s pained man-in-the-woods falsetto. But this time he and Swift fail to connect as they did in “Exile,” which gives the song a glum brand-integration vibe.
For most pop stars, that might be enough. Not for Swift.
The complete guide to home viewing
Get Screen Gab for weekly recommendations, analysis, interviews and irreverent discussion of the TV and streaming movies everyone’s talking about.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.