Sunday, December 13, 2020

Review: Evermore • Taylor Swift

Let history remember that, among other things, this was the year that broke Taylor Swift. Once the most regimented machine in the industry, she followed inspiration into the woods without shaking her tact: The result was Folklore, a career-reinvigorating tour de force in pop-informed singer-songwriter music. Released as the sun set on an uneventful summer, the record bounced its ideas between the walls of solitude. Echoing existence during a centennial pandemic, Folklore seems to have resonated more strongly – and successfully broken more of her self-imposed limitations – than her prior two efforts. That was just five months ago, meaning that under normal circumstances, we should be 19 months away from another Taylor Swift record. But 2020 was the year that broke Taylor Swift... again.

Whereas every Taylor Swift album cycle before it swung into a new selling point, her ninth studio record, Evermore, bears direct lineage to its predecessor. Produced with the same team, the album inherits record store static intentions without the strict regiment to the aesthetic. Most notably, programmed drums and synth shimmers become more prominent without interrupting a raw, cinematic allure. A drum machine punches out the album's liveliest beat on "Long Story Short," though the track ultimately falls short when compared to something more elegant like "Willow." Pointed string plucks give the song a nearly Top 40 rhythmic shape, around which Swift bends her half-spoken verse pattern and over which she kicks into a falsetto chorus melody. On “Marjorie,” however, a drum machine is merely the warm underbelly to support Swift’s songwriting. Her reputations ring loudest on the touching tribute to her late grandmother: “What died didn’t stay dead. You’re alive, so alive.”

Featuring vocal and lyrical cameos from the Haim sisters, “No Body, No Crime” pays honorable homage to the “other woman” archetype in country music. While the song’s rich Western production value makes it somewhat of a pleasant outlier among its peers, it isn’t alone in containing some of Swift’s best vocal arrangements and storytelling. Her voice's light yet malleable qualities take center stage on something like "Gold Rush," where an attractive stranger triggers a majestic suspension from reality, or "Cowboy Like Me," a Bonnie and Clyde love story. But her vocal abilities are especially accentuated when presented opposite the gravel-throated frontmen from Bon Iver and The National on "Coney Island" and "Ivy," the latter of which is among the record's best thanks to the effective vocal work: "Oh, god damn. My pain fits right in the palm of your freezing hand," she sings with emphasis in all the right places.

It’s safe to say, at least at this time, Swift will never be a linear artist. Even at her most low-maintenance and unpolished, she entangles the affairs of a complex cast into the record’s patchwork (and allegedly incorporates it into the companion record's characters) with striking specificity. Tracing a Hallmark movie script but painting the affairs in more detail than her template, Swift rekindles the former high school passion between the average Joe and Hollywood star who are home for the holidays – then later details the long-term emotional knots that the reunion ties around them. Across town, a couple's marriage goes sour and ends in two murders. Then there's Swift, a songwriter who has gracefully adopted folk story songwriting. She is often the narrator who stitches together affairs upon a universal backbone – love – but more so here than on Folklore, her own experiences are superimposed nicely upon her characters' narratives.

With Evermore, Swift is more content to extend the legacy of Folklore than to supersede it. She becomes comfortable in her newest musical environment rather than transitioning into the next chapter, and in turn, we hear her dilate a singular vision for the first time since her opening run of country records. The admirable sepia tones of her last record's songwriting and storytelling mature into equally enjoyable pastel here, even at the expense of allowing a few ill-fitting cuts saturate into full technicolor. And while Folklore and Evermore alone won't determine the trajectory for the rest of Swift's career, the incredible expansion on Evermore proves that it would be hard – if not impossible – to isolate the lessons learned at this precipice to just a mere phase. Together, the two records manage to assert themselves as imperative additions in a discography already packed with essential chapters.

Evermore is available now under Republic Records.

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