Before listening to Taylor Swift's albums folklore and evermore, I had dismissed Taylor Swift’s work as something that did not suit my aesthetic tastes. I did appreciate her early work as a kid in the country music scene, but I had felt that she had sold out.
Albums such as Reputation and Lover spawned hits such as “You Need to Calm Down” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” that seemed cringy to me at points, not to mention other works like “Shake It Off.” I did notice glimpses of potential enjoyment, such as in “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “Style,” and these songs were, thankfully, a sign of what was to come rather than an aberration.
This two-album pair, spawned by a surprise collaboration with Jack Antonoff (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite modern producers,) and Aaron Dessner of The National, is a career-defining tour de force that rarely disappoints. I recognize them as two halves of a quarantine exploration built off of a continued season of hard work from a trio of very competent musicians.
Swift seems far more at home in experimentation, being able to play with her country/folk roots while steeping them in an ocean of pop experience. The result is tracks such as “champagne problems” on evermore, which feels like an evolution on the old love songs of her past to tackle deeper, more unique stories of broken hearts, or “betty” on folklore, which sounds like a stripped-back performance sung around a campfire as the evening dies.
I appreciate the attention and care that was taken in this album. It seems like the pandemic permitted Swift and company to return to basics. These two albums together felt like they were turning back the clock on Taylor Swift. Each one feels like the other's 'sibling;’ they fit together beautifully. Listening to both of them straight through is a surprising and familiar experience.
Both albums also stand up on their own and provide a lot of replay value. Folklore is the more ‘poppy’ cousin and evermore is folksier, but that is part of the point. The former leads into the latter and allows for a seamless transition from Lover. “august,” for example, gives me this feeling of Natalie Imbruglia’s version of “Torn” transposed into folk and expanded upon to include synths to evoke this transcendent atmosphere. It is bright and multifaceted, but it is still a rather downbeat, reflective track.
The whole trilogy of “cardigan,” “august," and “betty” are worth listening to, and so is “exile.” The duet on the latter track is a welcome feature, with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon providing a beautiful pair to Swift’s dulcet tones.
Another one to highlight, this one from evermore, is “tolerate it.” The bitterness is obvious in her voice as she sings about a pair of individuals in a fraught position of uneven power. The singer is almost crying out to be a footnote in the story of the other’s life, and that they feel that the other has just ‘tolerated’ their love. Taylor’s take on the subject, one of abject helplessness and anxiety over their perception of the other’s feelings, is haunting. Her voice reflects it, almost sounding like a ghost with her lightness.
Other tracks that I can recommend are “willow,” “ivy,” and the closing title track, “evermore." On my first listen, however, I did click the heart icon for the entire first half of the album, so take from that what you will. I feel like evermore has the better individual songs. However, a friend of mine pointed out to me that folklore comes together in successive listens better. I am inclined to agree with them.
Each of them has its strengths, and I am very willing to say that my preference for evermore could come down to aesthetic preferences. I think the exploration of possibilities that seems more evident within the evermore album is something that I appreciate greatly. It tackles different directions, and it escapes to a wide array of places. Folklore is more self-contained and comes back to itself. Both are worth coming back to, over and over again.
I had written Taylor Swift off as a sell-out years ago, back when I was a young country fan who had not yet moved on to indie-folk and left the slick Nashville establishment behind (or, so I thought.) My derision for tracks such as “Shake It Off” remains, but my view on Swift has been softened significantly by the effort that I can see in these albums.
To properly give a review of these magnificent albums, I knew I had to go back and listen to more of her work. Some of it sprang from discussion with fellow music fans, but I quickly concluded that, after listening to “All Too Well” on the aforementioned friend’s recommendation, folklore and evermore are a grown-up Taylor, free from Big Machine Records, making the transition from the other direction that she made in Red. Folklore is Red but all grown up.
Evermore, in my opinion, goes back even further. It’s a grown-up Speak Now, but taken from the other direction. Instead of attacking pop from the direction of country, it is attacking folk from the direction of pop. Both of them show her growth as an artist in a period of her career that such growth is more vital now than probably at any other point in her career.
As I write this, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) has already been released, and it seems like there is a cycle of albums that leads from Fearless and ends with evermore. Throughout the cycle, Taylor has grown up to face various challenges, and the old echoes into the new.
Taylor Swift has now dedicated herself to re-releasing each of her first six albums to regain the rights to her own work. The story of Swift has found a new villain in yet another breakup: Scooter Braun and Big Machine Records. The sale of her ‘masters’ has left her taking this direction by continuing what I view as a new era in her career.
Swift has begun this new era by going back and improving on what is already there, and releasing three smash-hit albums in a year. The saga was begun with a quarantine season, locked up with Antonoff, Dessner, and others, and it continues to unfold with the re-release of Taylor’s youth escaping from the clutches of the Big Machine.