For Taylor Swift, 2020 was a year full of unexpected leaps. She showed that in July, when she dropped the homespun Folklore; she confirmed it again last month, when she released the documentary The Long Pond Studio Sessions and that film’s attendant live album. And she demonstrated it once more on Thursday morning, when she announced her ninth full-length and Folklore’s “sister record,” Evermore.
Folklore was a surprise on multiple levels: It was announced about 18 hours before its release; the collaborators she brought into the fold, including Aaron Dessner of the cognoscenti-beloved rockers the National, added dimensions to the sounds surrounding her already-formidable storytelling; and those stories focused on new characters, whether weary frontline workers or love-possessed teenagers. Evermore, recorded in the wake of Folklore after Swift “just kept writing,” offers a different kind of revelation: It expands on its predecessor’s promise in thrilling ways, with Swift cracking open her universe of subjects and following musical ideas to serendipitous places.
Swift’s lyric-writing abilities feel leveled-up on Evermore, its characters drawn in pointillistic detail. The gently weepy busted-engagement lament “Champagne Problems” opens with the couplet “You booked the night train for a reason/ So you could sit there in this hurt,” a knifepoint depiction of someone looking to escape from themselves, and not just their situation. The luminous “‘Tis the Damn Season” flips the seasonal-song script, Swift unspooling the story of a home-for-the-holidays fling amidst guitars that swirl like Hallmark-movie snowflakes. “Long Story Short” glances down the darker alleys branching off memory lane, its crisp beat turning its look back at the bad times into a shudder and its final line — “long story short, I survived” — into a sigh of relief. “Cowboy Like Me” depicts two con artists’ slip-slide into romance, its sweet guitars and stray harmonica riffs adding a candlelit glow to its love story.
Similarly, the musical risks on Evermore are bigger, both in scope and in payoff. “Tolerate It,” a masterful portrayal of a marriage trapped in a downward spiral behind its smooth façade, mines extra tension from a rhythmic structure that echoes its lyrics’ keeping-up-appearances anxiety — particularly when Swift growls “While you were out building other worlds, where was I?” on the bridge, syllables tumbling out at the speed of thought. “Marjorie,” which honors the wisdom of Swift’s grandmother Marjorie Finlay, uses a recording of the late opera singer as a counterpoint to Swift whisper-singing, “And if I didn’t know better/ I’d think you were singing to me now,” near the song’s end; Finlay’s fluttery soprano hovers above buzzing strings and synths, giving life to Swift’s hunch. The title track, which closes the album, brings Justin Vernon of Bon Iver back to the forefront (he plays and supplies backing vocals elsewhere) for a musical representation of love bringing someone back from the brink, with Vernon’s ghostly wail rising from the increasingly tumultuous music and ultimately serving as Swift’s anchor.
And then there’s “No Body, No Crime,” the collaboration with longtime Swift pals HAIM. An updated murder ballad — the honky-tonk’s replaced by an Olive Garden, and at one point Danielle Haim punctuates Swift’s claim of plausible deniability with a deadpan “she was with me, dude” — it’s a callback to Swift’s country roots that illuminates her growth as a songwriter since her debut full-length came out 14 years ago.
“I have no idea what will come next,” Swift wrote in a statement accompanying Evermore’s release — something that observers could have said about what to expect from the singer had they been asked before they headed to bed on Wednesday night. That’s probably for the best, though: Freedom from expectations has, both with this album and its predecessor, led to Swift’s leaps giving new heights to her already-pretty-skyscraping career.