The FMU (Folklore musical universe) has expanded. In a move that none of us saw coming, Taylor Swift released her ninth studio album, Evermore, with just under 24 hours’ notice. Back in the summer, she released her career-defining Folklore album (also with just under a day’s notice) and picked up five Grammy nominations for the set including Album of the Year and Song of the Year for “cardigan.” With Evermore, the name of the game is expansion. A “sister record” to Folklore as Taylor has so dubbed it, Evermore builds on Folklore’s exploration of multiple narrative threads — both fictional and autobiographical — with more grit, angst, and a more ambitious overall vision. There’s a lot going on on this album. From storylines that span several songs to narratives that are condensed to a single track, Evermore is fearless in the way it explicitly recalls Taylor’s past albums and simultaneously pushes her into new territory. Taylor took special care to make sure the narratives on Folklore interlocked and ultimately told a single story. On Evermore, however, the music icon chooses to be a bit more daring and delve deeper into the world created on Folklore. There are new characters (hello, Dorothea!), murder mysteries, bandits in love, and more. The interconnectedness of Folklore is missed, but Evermore is absolutely terrific in its own right.
The most striking element of Evermore is the multitude of parallels it has to Folklore. Of course, there are the expected new members of Taylor’s Track 5 (the stunning “tolerate it”) and Track 13 (“marjorie”) families, but there are also parallel metaphors (“mirrorball” and “gold rush”) and themes (“illicit affairs” and “ivy”). In interviews for this album’s promotional run, Taylor has explained that she envisions Folklore to represent spring and summer and Evermore to represent fall and winter. In order to flesh out that vision, she leans into brasher instrumentation, harsher narratives, and darker lyricism that takes a stark look at depression and mental health in the face of isolation. Evermore’s parallels with folklore begin with “willow.” The lead single for the album, “willow” is a French horn-laced love song that sees Taylor relying on Renaissance imagery (“Lost in your current like a priceless wine”) and a breathy lovestruck hook. The music video for “willow” is a continuation of the music video for “cardigan,” Folklore’s lead single. While “cardigan” was a more somber ballad about a hard-won love, “willow” is a more supple and bouncier midtempo that basks in its sweetness. That bouncier tempo anchors quite a few of the songs on Evermore and emphasizes the urgency of Taylor’s songwriting. On “gold rush,” a track that is parallel to Folklore’s “mirrorball,” she uses the metaphor of the California Gold Rush to spin a story of jealousy that is more layered than the ways that Taylor has previously explored the emotion. Here, she explores the way that jealousy can turn into sour fantasies as she sings “my mind turns your life into folklore.” Taylor doesn’t have the most impressive vocal range or the most interesting tone depending on your tastes, but she has grown immensely in the way that she adjusts her vocal inflections and flexes her head voice to complement the wordiness of her songwriting. Evermore is arguably the best example of this, whether she’s singing with a wink and a snarl (“no body, no crime”) or settling into nostalgic falsetto (“coney island”), she’s truly found her lane, vocally.
Folklore was largely a solo affair, bar one Bon Iver duet, but Evermore brings new collaborators (behind the board and on the mic) to help color the new characters and storylines the album brings to the FMU. Bon Iver comes back for Round 2 as Justin Vernon joins Taylor for the album’s title track. Evermore’s closing track, the song bears obvious parallels to Folklore’s “exile.” Justin opts for a more expressive falsetto on “evermore” (he employed a gruff baritone on “exile”) as he joins Taylor on a sonic journey of healing and self-reconciliation. It’s the final lyric of the song, and the album, that brings into perspective how cathartic Folklore and Evermore are: “This pain wouldn’t be for evermore.” Quite a few songs on the album touch on depression, mental health, and loneliness (“tolerate it,” “champagne problems,” “happiness,” etc.), but “evermore” is the only one that offers a path towards the light. Two more collaborators enter the Evermore fold: HAIM, whose Women In Music, Pt. III was named one of the 40 Best Albums of 2020, and The National. The alt-rock sister trio joins Taylor on the “Goodbye, Earl”-esque true crime anthem “no body, no crime.” A lush concoction of guitar, harmonica, bass, and lap steel guitar soundtrack this bone-chilling song that casts Este Haim as the center of a case of a cheating husband and a missing person. Yeah, it’s that dense. The National’s Aaron Dessner was a key collaborator in honing Folklore’s indie-folk sound, and this time the band joins Taylor on the nostalgic and idealistic “coney island.” Throughout Evermore, Taylor challenges herself to shift from self-mythologizing (think: Fearless or Red) to exploring larger narratives that may be more fictional, but are still incredibly arresting. She started down this path with “the last great american dynasty,” but she’s speeding down the path with Evermore.
The newest character in the FMU is also the title of one of the best tracks, “dorothea.” Sung from the point of view of her hometown lover, the drum-driven ballad is as forlorn as it is hopeful. “Dorothea” is connected to “’tis the damn season,” a song that features a slow-burning guitar melody that sets Dorothea as a Hollywood actress returning to her hometown and reigniting an old flame. Taylor croons “And the road not taken looks real good now/And it always leads to you and my hometown”; an obvious Robert Frost reference, this continues Taylor’s habit of drawing from the poetic influences of Frost and Emily Dickinson. Some of the other new narratives introduced on Evermore, like “cowboy like me,” for example, make for solid listens, but ultimately feel disconnected from the rest of the album. Evermore is at its best when Taylor looks inward and combines her tendency for self-reflection with a bit of self-referentialism. On “long story short,” Taylor takes us back in time a bit. We all remember her chaotic 2016 that birthed her controversial reputation album. This song sees Taylor reflecting on the discord of those experiences and reaching some semblance of closure; “Long story short, it was a bad time/Long story short, I survived.” It’s a candid look at the complexity of those years and it, arguably, unpacks Taylor’s emotions more efficiently than the entirety of reputation. One of Taylor’s most heartbreaking autobiographical moments on Evermore is also one of the final parallels the album has to Folklore. Both placed as Track 13 (Taylor’s lucky number), “marjorie” (Evermore) and, “epiphany” (Folklore) are dedicated to Taylor’s grandmother and grandfather, respectively. “Marjorie” is a heartfelt look at the specific pain that comes from losing a family member at a young age. An opera singer herself, Marjorie’s vocals are layered in the background of the track’s production, and it’s just beautiful.
Evermore is gorgeous. Orchestration from Bryce Dessner, backing vocals from Marcus Mumford, and more great production from the dream team that is Jack Antonoff, Aaron Dessner, Justin Vernon, and Taylor herself, work together to craft this stunning album. It’s not as consistent as folklore, but it does take more risks sonically (yes, “closure’s” industrial production is a risk that pays off) and lyrically. Taylor had already put out classic records before Folklore and Evermore, but she has never sounded as free as she does on these two records. The music was already great, but these two albums are the stuff legends are made of.
Key Tracks: “gold rush” | “no body, no crime” | “evermore” | “ivy” | “tolerate it”