Taylor Swift always commemorates her December birthday by doing something special: having a gigantic party, announcing a Netflix tour special, or appearing at the high-profile Jingle Ball at Madison Square Garden. This year, however, the musician celebrated turning 31 with an even bigger surprise: Roughly four and a half months after releasing the critically acclaimed folklore—a meditative indie-folk collaboration with The National’s Aaron Dessner and her long-time studio foil Jack Antonoff—Swift announced its “sister record,” a studio album called evermore.
In a note included with the album’s release, Swift shared that she and her collaborators “couldn’t stop writing songs,” which explains why the records sound so similar. Both have spare arrangements, pulsing drum programming, and grayscale guitars, as well as contributions from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and other members of The National. The band actually has a more prominent presence on evermore, leading to additional pops of color and texture: Dessner’s twin brother and National bandmate, Bryce, adds orchestration to nearly every song; “Coney Island” is a devastating indie-folk duet between Matt Berninger and Swift that depicts a crumbling romantic relationship; and both a drum machine and Bryan Devendorf’s brisk drumming propel “Long Story Short.”
However, evermore is even better than folklore, thanks to greater sonic cohesion (Antonoff only has one production credit, on the superlative “Gold Rush,” leaving the bulk of the music produced or co-produced by Aaron Dessner) and stronger songwriting. From a temporal standpoint, folklore felt like an album set in autumn—and evermore is decidedly a collection of songs happening as winter’s chill settles in. There’s a song about longing to rekindle an old flame over a holiday weekend (“Tis The Damn Season”), hints of a messy Christmas party where an intended engagement goes awry (“Champagne Problems,” co-written by “William Bowery,” a.k.a. Swift’s boyfriend, Joe Alwyn), and the album-closing title track, on which Swift equates December with “feeling unmoored.” While ostensibly about fictional characters, these songs are so full of wrenching, relatable detail that they resonate as deeply as any confessional.
Elsewhere on the record, Swift creates a complex universe of charming raconteurs, scorned friends, complicated women, and embattled couples—some blessed by good genes (“What must it be like to grow up that beautiful? / With your hair falling into place like dominoes”) and others who struggle with feeling left behind by glamorous old friends (“Dorothea”). In a twist, evermore’s bad seeds feel like heroes. “No Body, No Crime”—a country murder ballad featuring HAIM that’s a cross between Carrie Underwood’s scorched-earth “Before He Cheats” and The Chicks’ sardonic Thelma & Louise homage “Goodbye Earl”—is a seething character study of someone avenging her best friend’s murder. “Cowboy Like Me,” which features shadowy, whispery backing vocals from Marcus Mumford, is a rakish song about two grifters finding true love with each other: “With your boots beneath my bed / Forever is the sweetest con.”
However, evermore’s most poignant songs involve women quietly and pointedly finding their voices, as they come to terms with realities that are much different than what they envisioned life would be. As might be expected, these tunes can be vivid and painful. On “Happiness,” Swift sings, “No one teaches you what to do / When a good man hurts you / And you know you hurt him, too,” in a slow, deliberate tone, emphasizing the complications of a long-term relationship splintering. “Tolerate It” is an agonizing song from the perspective of a woman fully aware she’s stuck in a relationship with an ungrateful man: “I know my love should be celebrated / But you tolerate it.”
And then there’s the heart-wrecking “Marjorie,” a song about (and named after) Swift’s beloved late grandmother, Marjorie Finlay. Vernon provides backing vocals and Prophet X synth accents, while other musicians add drone, vermona pulse, cello, and other simmering, shimmering instrumentation that’s both ruminative and anguished. Lyrically, “Marjorie” is even more affecting: Coming as it does during a deadly pandemic, the song’s pangs of regret (“I should’ve asked you questions / I should’ve asked you how to be”) and consoling tone (“What died didn’t stay dead / You’re alive, you’re alive in my head”) land close to home, especially when paired with soaring violins and archival recording of the real-life Marjorie singing. It’s one of Swift’s best songs to date.
It’s tempting to credit pandemic-induced isolation for Swift’s striking musical direction—and it’s likely true she wouldn’t have had the time for these collaborations had she been on tour. But it’s clear that she’s been heading toward this deeper songwriting well on her past few albums—just listen to Reputation’s sweet romantic snapshot “New Year’s Day” or Lover’s wrenching “Soon You’ll Get Better,” a song she wrote about her mother’s cancer diagnosis. Swift long ago proved herself adept at dissecting the nuances of romantic relationships and drama. Over the last few years, her songs that confront the most painful moments of adulthood—mortality, self-reflection, taking responsibility for your actions—are even more affecting.
Fans are speculating that Swift already has a third album called woodvale ready to go at some point in the future. That remains an unconfirmed rumor, though its existence would be a welcome one: Like a good novel you can’t bear to put down, the evermore and folklore universes are populated with storylines that feel unfinished—and characters that still have a lot more to say.