I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Taylor Swift’s folklore was one of 2020’s few saving graces. For myself and many other Taylor fans, the songs on that album were a salve to sooth some of the heartbreak and disappointment of this year. Even the discourse around the songs was a welcome distraction from all the bad things happening around us. That the album would never have come to exist, likely in any form, without the pandemic is one of the only positives in this remarkably net-negative hellscape we’ve been living in since March. So when Taylor announced that she’d be dropping a sequel album called evermore last Thursday, it felt a bit like lightning striking twice. The first album was a sepia-toned autumnal beauty shot through with the wistful strains of a dying summer—in 2020’s case, a lost summer. Released two weeks out from what could be the loneliest Christmas many people ever experience, evermore promised to be folklore’s wintry twin: a cold-weather soundtrack full of snow-strewn backdrops, frosty windows, and solitary reflections. Taylor positioned the album as her gift to everyone else for her 31st birthday, but it’s more like alternative Christmas music in a year when playing the usual celebratory Christmas tunes seems bizarre or even profane. Tis the damn season, folks, and Taylor Swift is here to get you through it.
Sequel albums like this don’t necessarily have the best track record, especially in recent years. The most obvious example is Justin Timberlake, who returned from a lengthy hiatus in March 2013 with The 20/20 Experience. (If only Justin could have warned us about the actual 2020 experience.) The album earned strong reviews, rocketed several songs up the pop charts, and sold just shy of a million copies in its first week. That same fall’s 20/20 Experience Vol. 2, a darker, dumber, dourer sequel, squandered the good will of the first LP and quickly became a punchline for its bad lyrics and long, self-indulgent songs. The first 20/20 Experience album was retroactively dinged for those same sins and Timberlake’s career as an A-lister has never truly recovered. It wasn’t exactly impossible to imagine something similar happening to Taylor Swift—a savvier talent than Timberlake, to be sure, but also one who has already been overexposed and gone through a cycle of intense public backlash in the recent past. What if evermore was just more of the same and diminished the magic of folklore? Worse, what if the album just felt like inferior b-sides, or had a jump-the-shark moment on the level of “True Blood” from the second 20/20 Experience album? (Okay, that last one was never going to happen.)
The good news is that evermore isn’t a retread, nor does it follow a pattern of diminishing returns. The same core team that made folklore—Taylor, Aaron Dessner, Jack Antonoff, Justin Vernon, Taylor’s boyfriend Joe Alwyn (under the pseudonym of “William Bowery”)—is all back for the sequel, which means there are some sonic and aesthetic similarities between the two albums. While there are absolutely songs here that would have been right at home on folklore, though (the opener “willow,” for instance, is an acoustic-led indie-folk song that picks off right where “hoax” and “the lakes” left off), most of evermore feels darker, chillier, and more downbeat than its predecessor. Take “‘tis the damn season,” which feels a bit like this album’s version of folklore standout “august.” Where “august” was a swooning nostalgic song about a summer fling and its bittersweet conclusion, “‘tis the damn season” tells the tale of another temporary romance, this one a reconnection between two high school exes who find themselves falling back into one another’s arms while home for the holidays. Both songs ache in different ways, but where the narrator of “august” makes it to the end of that song with a feeling of resignation, the protagonist of “‘tis the damn season” seems a lot less sure of herself and what she wants: “So I’ll go back to LA 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 faking.”
The elements that give “‘tis the damn season” its beating heart—the wintertime chill, the sting of regret over roads not taken, the characters reeling in uncertainty and indecisiveness—permeate much of evermore and make it perhaps Swift’s most visceral LP. You can really feel the bitter chill of a winter breeze in these songs, sense the pangs of the heartache the characters are experiencing, taste the pain of the moments and memories described. It’s almost certainly Swift’s saddest album, an album that borrows the deepest pangs of loneliness and dejection that populated parts of Red and Speak Now, but that rarely offers the counterbalance of bliss and euphoria that those albums had. The breakup songs here aren’t just breakup songs: they’re songs about refused marriage proposals (“champagne problems”) and divorces (“tolerate it” and “happiness,” two absolutely gutting tales about the moments immediately before and after a marriage breaks apart). The illicit affairs here don’t end with meetings in parking lots, but with wounds that won’t heal anytime soon, or even with grisly homicide (the exceptional “no body, no crime,” a thrilling and funny murder ballad featuring the Haim sisters that country radio would play if country radio had any guts at all). Three songs from the end of the record, Taylor sneaks in “marjorie,” a song about her late grandmother that might be her most haunting heartbreaker ever. “I should’ve asked you questions/I should’ve asked you how to be/Asked you to write it down for me/Should’ve kept every grocery store receipt/’Cause every scrap of you would be taken from me,” Swift sings on the bridge. It’s a perfect encapsulation of where you often find yourself after losing someone dear to you: grasping around for more links to them, cherishing the things you never cherished when they were alive, regretting every opportunity you might have missed to make more memories or know them better. The memories you do get to keep of a person you love who dies are never enough, but they have to be enough. “What died didn’t stay dead,” Taylor sings in the chorus refrain; “You’re alive in my head.” At the end of Lover, she said that she wanted to be defined by the things she loves and not the things that haunt her in the middle of the night, but evermore feels like it’s all about the things that haunt her in the middle of the night.
A big point of speculation around folklore, back when we only knew the title and had seen the artwork but hadn’t heard a single note of music yet, was that it would be Taylor Swift’s long-awaited return to country music. Apart from a song or two, that didn’t prove to be the case, but evermore is far closer to that vein. It’s still not loaded with banjos, mandolins, steel guitar, or other trappings of country music: the core sonics are built on piano and acoustic guitar, just like last time. But the songwriting here simply feels closer to Taylor’s roots than folklore’s did. Even beyond the few true-blue country songs that appear here (the aforementioned “no body, no crime,” or relaxed, lovely slow burns like “dorothea” or “cowboy like me”), evermore is dominated by short-form fiction vignettes that feel grounded in the genre that, at its core, was always supposed to be about storytelling. The girl sitting on a bench in “coney island,” watching the carnival rides and remembering a boy she used to love after his tragic death; the heartbroken wife in “tolerate it,” trailing off as she utters a profanity, begging her husband to see her; the cheating lovers in “ivy,” stealing moments together and wondering what will happen when someone finds them out. These songs and many of the others that surround them are arguably the greatest lyrical triumphs of Taylor Swift’s already impressive career as a songwriter—tales filled with detail and emotional nuance so rich that you feel you are living in them. They feel like country songs, even if they don’t always sound like them.
With folklore, Taylor did something remarkable: she delivered a genuinely pleasant surprise in a year where almost every surprise has been catastrophically horrific. It wasn’t just that the album arrived out of nowhere, less than a year after her last, or that it came in the midst of a global pandemic. More than that, folklore was the big pivot, the album where Taylor turned back to her songwriting roots and embraced them in a way she hadn’t for the better part of a decade. For many, it was the album they had always wanted Taylor Swift to make, but had never thought to hope for. With evermore, there is still an element of surprise, but it isn’t as strong on either front: we’ve been here before, with a 2020 Taylor Swift album released less than 24 hours after it was announced, and with this basic sonic blueprint. To my ears, though, evermore is even more remarkable for how it captures the very specific mood that I (and I would wager, many others) are feeling as 2020 finally nears its final days. folklore felt like someone making the most of their circumstances, excitedly using the free time of quarantine to craft something exciting and experimental. evermore feels like someone nearing a breaking point, frustrated and fatigued and utterly heartbroken about the year we lost. “Hey December/Guess I’m feeling unmoored/Can’t remember/What I used to fight for” Taylor sings on the title track, which closes the album out in beautiful, melancholy fashion. She sounds ready to escape to the wooded cabin where Justin Vernon—who provides an assist here—once retreated to record For Emma, Forever Ago. “I had a pain so peculiar that this pain would be for evermore” goes the first chorus. I’ve had a similar thought many times this year, especially recently: something along the lines of “So, are things ever going to be good again?” On “evermore,” though, Taylor seems to change her mind midway through, somehow finding her way back to hope: “And I was catching my breath/Floors of a cabin creaking under my step/And I couldn’t be sure/I had a feeling so peculiar/This pain wouldn’t be for/Evermore.”
I’m willing to buy into that hope: to the idea that the sun might break on the horizon in 2021, and that we’ll find our way back to the things that make life beautiful. Until that moment comes, though, evermore feels like a pretty perfect soundtrack to wait out cold, dark, lonely winter.