The best Taylor Swift song released in the past year and a half is “Soon You’ll Get Better,” a tender and lacerating deep cut on her seventh album, Lover, which dropped a lifetime ago, in August 2019. She addresses, in a quavering voice over spare acoustic guitar, her mother’s cancer diagnosis; the artists then still known as the Dixie Chicks provide gentle banjo, fiddle, and vocal harmony; their veteran gravitas is underscored by the shattering hitch in Swift’s breath as she delivers the line, “You’ll get better soon / ’Cause you have to.” Sheesh. Let’s all go ahead and have a good cry, again.
Incredible song. Arguably the best country song of Swift’s nearly 15-year career. Arguably the best pure country weeper served up by anybody since Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” back in 2009. The sublime weepiness of “Soon You’ll Get Better” is bolstered, furthermore, by how striking it sounds amid the relative stylistic chaos and oft-vapid pop calamity of Lover, crammed in at track 12 between the ludicrously giddy “London Boy” (which sounds like it was improvised by Ted Lasso at gunpoint) and the alarmingly moody sax-and-sacrilege oddball “False God.” Context matters. There’s nothing quite like an elegant late-album sucker punch. A little pop calamity—even a little outright vapidity—suits Taylor Swift well. Her weird and jarring and even objectively terrible songs help her truly great songs pop just that much more.
That capacity for shock—or even mild surprise, either sonically or emotionally—is what’s missing from Friday’s Evermore, Swift’s ninth album and her second surprise release of 2020. It is a “sister record” to her July blockbuster Folklore, which likewise dropped less than 24 hours after it was announced, paired her with new prestige-indie pals from the National and Bon Iver, and painted with a wintry monochromatic palette from beginning to end. Folklore, produced and cowritten by the National’s Aaron Dessner and longtime Swift pal Jack Antonoff, was, well, a blockbuster, with eight weeks at no. 1 on the Billboard album chart and five Grammy nominations that were doubtless especially gratifying after the Recording Academy’s chilly receptions for both Lover and 2017’s misbegotten Reputation. As shrewd pop-star gestures go, Swift has owned this accursed year of COVID-19 semi-lockdown, turning the claustrophobic agonies of the self-quarantine era into the raw fuel for a stylistic pivot into prestigious sad-lumberjack territory. Good for her, honestly. Very shrewd.
thinking about how 2020 gave us more taylor swift studio albums than government stimulus checks— duʿā bint lipa (@afroelven) December 10, 2020
And it’s all inevitably getting a little dull. Right? Right. Evermore is lovely and even moving in places, but it’s the very definition of diminishing returns. Swift made this same record, with the same people, less than half a year ago. Folklore had the blearily gorgeous “Mirrorball,” the righteously pissed “Mad Woman,” the agonizingly distraught “This Is Me Trying,” and the wryly romantic “Betty”; Evermore has no song half as good as any of those. It would frankly shock me if this at all surprised you: This is just how math, and time, and art works. As a victory lap, this “sister record” is harmless, even if the very idea of a victory lap in 2020 is a little gauche, a little craven, a little Drake, let’s say. Congratulations to Swift in advance for her gaudy first-week streaming numbers, again. But if she keeps making music this sternly muted, then eventually she will disappear completely.
Folklore’s subdued “Cardigan” proved that a Taylor Swift song can hit no. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 without sounding anything like a hit single; Evermore opener “Willow,” which is a single in the sense that it has a video, is even chillier, a monochromatic chamber-folk jam with one hot line (“I come back stronger than a ’90s trend”) and an almost impressive disinterest in being a hot song. The shinier and more pop-minded Antonoff has receded: After chipping in on roughly a third of Folklore, he contributes to only two songs here, the shimmery “Gold Rush” and the modestly propulsive “Ivy,” minor tunes with nonetheless a nervous energy you miss when it’s gone. Dessner, by contrast, is now a near-constant presence, and his stately and erudite festival-core sound—a sort of imploded bombast honed over a 20-year career with his twin brother Bryce as part of the National—can be a thrilling weapon within a much larger arsenal, but has quickly grown suffocating now that it’s the only mode Swift will work in.
Indeed, for all the thoughtful genre-crossing discourse (and not-so-thoughtful stan hostility) Folklore spawned, your opinion about both that record and now Evermore really comes down to whether you can deal with the National or not. Either you’re thrilled to parse their infinite sad-bastard nuances—the submerged half-melodies, the murmured bookish self-recriminations—or you’d rather hang glide into a live volcano. (At press time, Amazon has only one remaining copy of the band’s nine-record vinyl box set that’s just them playing an actually really great song called “Sorrow” over and over and over again; it’s a steal at $999, plus shipping.) As myself a National fan who once drove to Cincinnati for a whole-ass music festival curated by these dudes, I am theoretically the one-man target audience for the Evermore track “Coney Island,” costarring the rest of the band, wherein mercurial frontman Matt Berninger joins Swift in sweetly crooning lines like, “‘Cause we were like the mall before the internet / It was the one place to be / The mischief, the gift-wrapped suburban dreams / Sorry for not winning you an arcade ring.” But it’s just not as subversive, or for that matter as memorable, as I want it to be.
Swift appears to be coming for all your sad-bastard faves. “‘Tis the Damn Season,” from its deftly picked gentle-snowstorm guitars to its Ex-Lovers Reconnecting Over the Holidays melodrama, is an American Football song in all but name, and Swift’s lyrics, now as always, have a nervy specificity worthy of both primo Nashville cheese and emo melodrama:
So I’ll go back to L.A. and the so-called friends
Who’ll write books about me, if I ever make it
And wonder about the only soul
Who can tell which smiles I’m fakin’
And the heart I know I’m breakin’ is my own
To leave the warmest bed I’ve ever known
That’s all perfectly elegant, though I tend to gravitate toward Evermore’s clunkier tracks, or least they’re clunkier verbally. “There’ll be happiness after you / But there was happiness because of you” is not the cleverest chorus Swift ever wrote, but “Happiness” has a striking serenity to it; same deal with “Marjorie,” a subdued tribute to her opera-singing grandmother that revolves around the phrase “What died didn’t stay dead” and repeats it until it ceases to sound clunky at all. Folklore was widely touted as Swift’s first record to not be exhaustingly autobiographical (though “Betty” prompted plenty of, uh, debate), and Evermore follows suit: Given that her longtime boyfriend Joe Alwyn is now cowriting boring songs like “Champagne Problems” under a cheeky pseudonym, we are to understand that a heartrending lovelorn ballad like “Tolerate It” is now more of a writing exercise than another of her famous ex-boyfriend-shredding exorcisms. It is a relief, truly, that detailed knowledge of Taylor Swift’s love life is no longer a prerequisite to “getting” one of her albums. But the songs are all less distinct as a result.
“No Body, No Crime,” costarring Swift’s old pals in Haim, is somehow both an Evermore highlight and one of the record’s gravest disappointments. It’s a semi-cheeky murder ballad in the grand tradition of the Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl,” but it’s just not cheeky or for that matter campy enough: It is theoretically delightful to hear Swift name-drop Olive Garden or dial up her long-abandoned twang for a line like “he reports his missing wife,” but Carrie Underwood would’ve delivered this song with way more pizzazz, and the mischievous Haim sisters themselves never quite get to cut loose. There is ultimately far too much restraint to Evermore: too somber even at its bubbliest, too stiff even at its loosest, and doomed by the inevitable drop in song quality when your last record came out, like, five months ago.
Evermore wraps up with the title track, Swift’s second 2020 duet with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon after Folklore’s “Exile,” and this time Vernon at least gets to really cut loose, bellowing about “the violence of the dog days” in his eerie falsetto as Swift softly invokes “the floors of a cabin creaking under my step.” It’s not that the National’s or Bon Iver’s beardo aesthetic overwhelmed her; with these records, she impressively turned their radiant monochrome style to her own purposes, her own personal and newly impersonal schemes. She needed to calm down, and she did, and the blur of Evermore is not unpleasurable. But a blur it remains. I personally never need to hear “London Boy” again, but I’m newly grateful for the truly great Taylor Swift song “London Boy” threw into even sharper relief, and I hope she doesn’t stay this calm forever.