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CultureCow: Taylor Swift accidentally wrote too many songs for folklore and now we’re stuck with evermore

Commentary by Devin McCue, Sumner Newscow — Happy Friday. Coming off the heels of Folklore, one her most financially and critically successful albums of her career, you’d think Taylor Swift would’ve preferred to take a break.  Maybe run into the woods as she is wont to do, or buy another large plot of property to write a song about.  Instead, she kidnapped Jack Antonoff, Aaron Dressner, and Bryce Dressner to spring a surprise album, evermore on us.  Taylor is hardly the first artist to do this, Rolling Stone compiled a list of artists who released albums in rapid succession to different degrees of success.  The constant refrain throughout these sister albums, however, is that they don’t enjoy the same commercial success as their predecessors.

There are exceptions like Ariana Grande’s album Thank U Next that came out a mere six months after Sweetner (which I would argue is the better of the two), but even that still falls into the trap that all sister albums do: it lacks focus.  Albums like these aren’t necessarily doomed from the jump, but they are certainly at a disadvantage because most aren’t born out of a surge of inspiration, but instead an overabundance of material.  In Taylor’s case, it’s an embarrassment of riches, but that still doesn’t change the fact that evermore is clearly made up of all the songs that didn’t make it on to folklore.

Despite the lack of focus, it’s still a very good album that I would put in the north half of her discography thanks to some of the best writing of her career.  If you’re a seasoned reader of CultureCow (hi, nice to see you again), you’ll know I’ve written track-by-track breakdowns of Swift’s last 3 albums: Reputation, Lover, and Folklore, and just because evermore is a little weaker than its predecessors doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of the same treatment.

willow

Swift’s lead track is a slow and somber drudge back into the trees we emerged from at the finale of folklore to search for more bad relationships.  Willow immediately sets the tone for what to expect of the rest of the album by sounding eerily similar to, and extending metaphors from, the previous album while maintaining a crumb of individuality.  The song reads like a continuation of the “Betty” storyline, but is either a fictional tale she concocted out of thin air about a suffocating relationship in which she feels like her life is bending for the sake of her partner…or her boyfriend Joe Alwyn should be extremely concerned for the second album in a row.

champaign problems

Champaign Problems is the cynical continuation of New Year’s Day, the closing track on Reputation.  It has nearly the same piano backdrop, but the message has inverted.  Rather than picking up the broken glass and streamers after a night of celebration, Taylor laments turning down a proposal and canceling the celebration altogether.  This song starts an unfamiliar trend for the rest of the record of completely fictional stories without a real tie back to the author.  Taylor has written fictional songs before, but it isn’t her usual style and was never what she thrived at until now.  Working with the Dressner brothers and their band The National, propelled Taylor’s songwriting past her own trauma which allowed her to focus less on a sly, revealing tale and more about the musicality of her words.  She’s always allowed her producers and bandmates to put together a great sounding song to wrap around her words, but this album is where she decided to write a series of barely-related vignettes that only exist for the sake of the song.

gold rush

Writing without much personal attachment is a double-edged sword, however, because if one doesn’t have an interesting story to tell, they’ll end up with songs like gold rush.  It isn’t Swift’s style to put out songs with as little to say as this song, but I guess there had to be a third song on the album, so why not this one.  Gold rush is about chasing someone that everyone else already wants.  Taylor sings well, but other than that, you can skip this one.

‘tis the damn season

Well, it is the damn season so why not put out the most angsty holiday song ever?  Instead of the Betty/James/August storyline from Folklore, we have a two-song arc about a woman named Dorothea who left her hometown in pursuit of fame and her nameless childhood sweetheart.  ‘tis the damn season is a great introduction to Dorothea’s character as she returns back to the town she grew up in for the holidays.  For those who moved away from home, it’s a very relatable story of returning to the landmarks you were raised around and falling back into the relationships you’ve grown out of.  In Dorothea’s case, that relationship is with her high school ex who still lives there and who she plans to hook up with while she’s in town.  This is the most relatable theme in the entire album.  Everyone around the country who visits their parents’ houses is trying to rekindle an old flame for exactly one weekend.  As the song plays, the seemingly bitter tone melts into a relaxed hum of nostalgia after the uncomfortableness of returning home is supplanted by the familiar.

tolerate it

Track number five, the lauded slot for the most vulnerable song on a Taylor Swift album, never messes around and evermore is no exception.  Tolerate it is a brutal tale of neglect and abuse where Taylor’s character tirelessly works for her husband’s attention and affection only to be acknowledged but never loved.  Swift has covered unrequited love before, but never like in this song, which paints a vivid picture of her myriad attempts to evoke a kind word from her lover by bearing her heart in the vain attempt to force him to do the same.  Each chorus reminds us that she goes to great lengths to make him celebrate her love while the verses give more precise descriptions of the origins of such a neglectful relationship and the feelings that keep her bound to him.  This is one of Taylor Swift’s best songs she’s ever made and I desperately hope it isn’t based off a true story.

no body no crime

How does Taylor follow up such a depressing story?  By teaming up with one of the best indie bands in the business, HAIM, and making a diddy about murdering a man who hurt their friend a la Good Bye Earl by the Chicks.  This song has everything: a murder mystery plot, a direct reference to Before he Cheats by Carrie Underwood, an Olive Garden, what else could one ask for?  One of the more entertaining vignettes on the album and if you aren’t familiar with HAIM, this is a great introduction.

happiness

In true Taylor Swift fashion, the song literally titled “happiness” is one of the saddest on the entire sad album.  The title references the concept of happiness itself rather than a specific situation and alludes to the realization that she and her ex-partner can only achieve happiness once they acknowledge they made each other happy, at least for a time.  It’s another introspective song about the pain of losing a relationship, but gaining a fresh perspective.  If this album has a message, this is it and once again, someone needs to check in on her alleged boyfriend Joe Alwyn because while this album is less explicitly queer, it’s just as troubling for a current partner.  This is the song I first felt the full impact Aaron Dressner had on this album because the hypnotic bassline coupled with a synth I can’t quite place is a calling card of the National and something Taylor embraces as the album progresses.  Happiness also contains the first of many quotes that deserve to exist on their own with the line:

“But now my eyes leak acid rain on the pillow where you used to lay your head”

Dorothea

Dorothea is the conclusion of the two-song arc started in ‘tis the damn season, and is also the first song Taylor wrote for the album.  Dorothea is told from the point of view of the nameless ex she would go on to hook up with earlier in the album and who seems like a genuinely great guy.  Strange how Taylor’s best love songs always are sung “from the male perspective” or directed at someone eerily devoid of a gendered pronoun…  He is nothing but supportive of Dorothea and her advertisements and states “but are you still the same soul I met under the bleachers?” which is an allusion to Swift’s You Belong With Me of late-2000s glory.  Dorothea is an extremely cute song, but that also adds to the glaring flaw in this album: that it has no direction.  If the record isn’t driven by a narrative or a tone, there’s nothing to tie it together and it comes off as a disjointed collection of singles, rather than a cohesive album.  This is the same critique of Ariana Grande’s Thank U Next although both albums have the benefit of being made up of great singles.

coney island

This is unrelated to the album, but if you are reading this DO NOT GO TO CONEY ISLAND.  That place is horrible and it isn’t worth the train ride.  Coincidentally, this song follows the same logic in that it isn’t worth the time it takes to get to it and while you’re there, you can’t wait to leave.  It’s a tasteless song about a breakup and feels like it was placed at number 9 in the track list because it didn’t fit anywhere else.  It deserves to be said, however, that despite the blandness of this song, Matt Belanger sing’s his ass off.

ivy

Yet another song where Taylor Swift sings about cheating on her man with someone whose gender is never revealed.  Strange how this keeps happening to an artist whose queerness has been rumored for over a decade.  Regardless of how conspiracy-minded you are, ivy is an excellent story about how a new lover has planted roots in Taylor’s mind and heart that she’s willing to throw away her marriage for and succumb to the emotional ivy that’s overtaken her.  Ivy was also based on a series of poems, which is immediately evident because each bar of the song is dripping with imagery.

Swift shines when she can take a preexisting story and make it her own like in Last Great American Dynasty, but if she starts revamping poetry in that vein, her music will take on a new visual element we aren’t accustomed to in mainstream music.  The plot of the song ends when Taylor asks her genderless lover if they want to run away together or drink her husband’s wine and await judgment.  They ultimately choose the latter and her husband sets the house on fire so maybe it was a little misguided.

cowboy like me

This song has the little “e” next to it that stands for explicit so you already know it’s a bit more interesting for a Swiftie song.  It’s another short story about two hustlers who fall in love at a fancy party and the only thing they manage to steal is each other’s hearts.  How sweet.  Since this once again shatters any continuity in the album, it’s painfully obvious a lot of these songs were meant for folklore until Jack Antonoff convinced Taylor she couldn’t release a two hour album.  This, like Dorothea, is another cute song that sounds excellent to boot.  The cherry on top is another line worthy of its own praise:

“now you hang from my lips like the gardens of Babylon”

long story short

On an album of leftover songs, this is a song that should’ve been left out.  Multiple outlets have claimed it’s a recap of Taylor Swift’s storied beef with once great rapper and recent election loser (tied with Trump) Kanye West, but I don’t believe that for a second.  The Taylor/Kanye drama was entertaining for all of 1 month then was coopted by fake stories and clearly staged diss tracks thereafter.  I don’t care about this resolved conflict and neither should you.  On top of all that, the song is boring (outside of bassline).

Marjorie

Marjorie is the name of Taylor’s late grandma who passed in 2003 and was an opera singer who encouraged Swift to pursue music.  The 13th track on folklore was dedicated to her grandpa Dean, so it only makes sense the 13th track on evermore would match that.  The song is comprised of strange truisms like “never be so kind, you forget to be clever. Never be so clever, you forget to be kind.”

Which on their face, aren’t too bad, but they aren’t deep enough to get your ankles wet, let alone to share them as the parting wisdom of a woman who made a huge impact on your life.  There are other #girlboss sayings sprinkled throughout the melody, but the chorus of “what died didn’t stay dead” ruins any chance of a comfortable tune.

closure

Every album since Lover has ended one song too late and that is never more evident than this album that names the penultimate track “closure.”  It tells the tale of Taylor rejecting a letter from a recent breakup asking for closure because it felt like she’s being “handled.”  If this song isn’t about Alwyn’s letter to Taylor after a breakup we haven’t heard about yet, I have no other theories to what it could be referring to.

She dons a British accent when introducing the letter she received from “across the sea” and expresses disgust at the concept that she would need such a patronizing document.  It’s a very sympathetic message that closure is sometimes a slammed door in the face and a handwritten letter explaining how that person would still like to remain, friends, is an insult rather than a comfort.

evermore

Hey we got a title track.  Evermore is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard about the process of growth and mental health.  The line “motion capture put me in a bad light I replay my footsteps on each stepping stone trying to find the one where I went wrong” is especially telling that Taylor has done her homework.  Growth is not a linear process and each step taken out of context will appear ugly or incorrect, but is vital to learning from past mistakes, which Swift understands from her own challenges and hopes to pass on to anyone who might need to hear it.  The sound and structure of the song match the tumultuous message it’s describing.  After the calm, yet troubling, intro eventually devolves into a raging (and incredible) second bridge.  After the bridge wraps, the outro is as peaceful and introspective as the feelings you’ll have after listening to evermore to completion, which makes this the perfect bookend to a very decent album.

In totality, evermore is solid seven-to-eight out of ten and gives her fans something to hold on to while she reinvents herself once again.  Folklore was a significant break from her previous work and while evermore is clearly just a continuation of that concept, I think we can expect much more of this type of music from her going forward.  Her cottage-core aesthetic of flower crowns and baggy flannels are here to stay and finally bury that wide-brimmed hat from 2012’s Red she’s long outgrown.  You never know where Taylor Swift will pivot next because of how closely she keeps her secrets to the vest, but if this is any indication, it’s safe to say indie music has invaded pop and we should get used to balancing our times between trap beats and acoustic guitars if we ever plan to listen to the top 40 again.

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