“What Died Didn’t Stay Dead”: A Review of Taylor Swift’s "evermore"
As I write, we’re living through one of the bleakest winters many of us will ever experience. Thousands of dead daily from a raging COVID-19 pandemic that’s forced many of us to refrain from our traditional end-of-the-year gatherings with friends and family. A president whose petulance knows no bounds, delaying a critical coronavirus relief bill and refusing acknowledge the reality of his electoral defeat. Not even the prospect of a vaccine and the return of something resembling normal life over the next year can dull the pain and anxiety we’re all feeling right now.
With the stark evermore, Taylor Swift has written a melancholy yet hopeful soundtrack for our gloomy winter. Unlike the unabashed exuberance of Lover or the self-assured introspection of folklore, her second surprise album of 2020 lives in the twilight of dying relationships amidst the desolate, ebbing days of mid-winter. She’s drawn out this theme explicitly in recent interviews, explaining that she wanted evermore to “reflect fall and winter” in the same way she intended folklore represented spring and summer. But evermore is more than just a general rumination on a frigid season and its waning light; it’s the album for our long, dark, and lonely present moment. That’s something Swift recognizes in her introductory essay, saying the record is for those of us “who turn to music to cope with missing loved ones.”
Individually, the songs on evermore concentrate on the moments of heartbreak and sorrow that inevitably accompany life. They tell stories of living through emotional hardship and, most importantly, emerging wiser and stronger for the experience. But where folklore mostly looks back on these episodes with an attitude of equanimity or gratitude, evermore dwells on the immediate ordeal of the decaying and dying relationships many of its songs depict. It’s much more an album about the actof moving forward in the aftermath of failed and failing relationships than the more philosophical and retrospective musings of folklore. As Swift herself put it,“evermore deals a lot in endings of all sorts, shapes, and sizes, all the kinds of ways we can end a relationship, a friendship, something toxic, and the pain that goes along with that, the phases of it.”
In both musical style and songwriting substance, evermore lives up to its billing as a sister album to folklore. Where that album reflects on a lifetime of emotional scars with maturity and acceptance, evermore examines just how those scars came to be in the first place. Swift pokes and prods at the fresh wounds that litter the wintry scenes she paints across the album, letting them bleed for all to see before patching them up and moving forward. Though they may feel excruciating in the moment, Swift remains us that life goes on and these wounds will eventually heal.
Like winter solstice celebrations that mark the shortest days of the year, though, evermore ultimately carries a hopeful message. The album returns to the themes of intimacy and emotional connection Swift has explored throughout her career while elaborating on the more contemplative notions of her two most recent albums. Itreminds us that our emotional agony won’t last forever, and that better days will come again. Though intense heartache courses through the album, there’s still room for glimmers of optimism in the end. Just as winter days eventually stop growing darker and start becoming brighter, we can survive our emotional wounds and rebuild our lives.
A chill wind blows through evermore, with Swift suffusing her songs with frosty reminders of the season. That’s readily apparent in the appropriately titled “’tis the damn season,” set amidst the protagonist’s return to her home town for the holidays. When she passes by her old flame, she feels “the kind of cold, fogs up windshield glass” that reminds her of “an ache in you, put there by the ache in me.” It’s even more clear on the album’s title track, with references to the darkening months of November and December accompanied by the image of Swift padding about “barefoot in the wildest winter/catching my death.”
Many of the songs on evermore live and breathe in this icy atmosphere. A once intimate relationship only “gets colder and colder/When the sun goes down” on “coney island,” with Swift and Matt Berninger of The National lingering on the slow death of a once-promising romance through mutual neglect. On “ivy,” winter likewise serves as a metaphor for a loveless marriage described as “faith-forgotten land” covered in snow. Arctic emotional frigidity similarly permeates the unsparing “tolerate it,” while on “no body, no crime” revenge is served up ice cold.
What’s more, evermore delivers two of Swift’s most emotionally brutal songs: “champagne problems” and the aforementioned “tolerate it.”In the former, she conveys the heartbreak and confusion involved in a woman turning down a marriage proposal from her college sweetheart. Her protagonist accepts full responsibility for her actions, acknowledging that, while she “couldn’t give a reason” for her refusal, she recognizes the hurt she inflicted when she dropped her would-be fiancé’s “heart of glass.”
That’s nothing compared to the devastating portrait of frozen indifference Swift paints in “tolerate it.” Her narrator waits “by the door like I’m just a kid,” uses her “best colors for your portrait,” and sets “the table with the fancy shit” - only for her significant other to simply tolerate her and her sincere expressions of affection. While she made him “my temple, my mural, my sky,” she’s now “begging for footnotes in the story of your life.” She nonetheless maintains her own self-respect, insisting that her “love should be celebrated.” Though she holds out hope she may have “got it wrong somehow” and desperately wants to know “if it’s all in my head,” Swift’s protagonist warns her romantic partner that she could take “this dagger in me” and pull it out - putting an end to their fading relationship.
For all its wintry despair and tales of emotional frostiness, however, evermore remains an optimistic album at heart. Many of its songs lack any real bitterness or ill will, serving more as a mediations on the pain and heartache inherent in living. That’s clear in the longing that saturates both sides of the unfulfilled relationship depicted in in “’tis the damn season” and “dorothea.” It’s also present on “coney island,” where there’s less recrimination than a mutual attempt to understand just how a failed relationship went wrong, and “champagne problems,” where the narrator reassure her former significant other that he’ll “find the real thing instead/She’ll patch up your tapestry that I shred.”
But Swift’s underlying hopefulness in the face of emotional anguish shines brightest on “happiness,” the final song she recorded for the album. When she’s able to take proper perspective from “above the trees,” Swift’s able to “see this for what it is.” But since she’s smack in the middle of an agonizing breakup, she’s unable to see “all the years I’ve given” to the relationship as anything more than “shit we’re dividing up.” Still, she understands that there was happiness before her now-former significant other and there will be happiness after him. She knows she can’t heal by “making you a villain” and that she bears her own share of responsibility for the demise of their relationship:
No one teaches you what to do
When a good man hurts you
and you know you hurt him too
Nor does the disintegration of the relationship mean it brought her no joy - on the contrary. All the same, there will be contentment “across our great divide” in the “glorious sunrise” that’s to come. That promised break of dawn ties back into evermore’s wider themes of finding rays of light, no matter how fleeting or faint, in our darkest moments. It also makes plain Swift’s view that keeping perspective and forging ahead constitute the best way to cope with the sort of deep heartbreak she recounts so well here.
That’s evident from “long story short,” a jaunty autobiographical number that wouldn’t have been out of place on folklore. It’s a fairly self-explanatory song, one that reminds us that life can knock us back hard when we least expect it. We can try to pick our battles, Swift tells us, but sometimes the battles will pick us and we’ll fall “from the pedestal/Right down the rabbit hole.” But we can survive the blows of fortune and climb “right back up the cliff” when we’re “pushed off the precipice.”
However, it’s evermore’s title track - by far its best and one of Swift’s finest overall - the that distills the album’s central theme of hope and endurance amidst the suffering and heartbreak that come with life down to its essence. Driven by a mournful piano melody, Swift’s exquisite lyrics convey the emotional desolation of a lonely winter with sublime and piercing insight. “Gray November” sees her ruminating over her recent missteps, “Trying to find the one where I went wrong,” and “Writing letters/Addressed to the fire.” Letting the winter wind hit her as she looks out an open window, Swift relates having
a feeling so peculiar
That this pain would be for
Come December, she confesses that she’s “feeling unmoored” and “Can’t remember/What I used to fight for.” Swift still broods over her mistakes, rewinding her memories only to dwell “On the very moment all was lost.” That only reinforces her sense that she can’t possibly escape her hurt and despair, that she’ll always be trapped in the froze emotional wasteland she sketches in such stark terms.
With the bridge, the piano picks up and vocals from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon kick in. As Swift related in an interview, Vernon’s lyrics and their relatively rapid delivery correspond with “the clutter of all your anxieties in your head and they’re all speaking at once.” These apprehensive voices “can’t not think of all the cost/And the things that will be lost” of all the currents swirling around and buffeting Swift. But as the bridge continues, her own voice comes through loud and clear:
And when I was shipwrecked
I thought of you
In the cracks of light
I dreamed of you
It was real enough
To get me through
You were there
It’s hard to hear those lyrics and not imagine them as directed, at least in some small way, toward her fans. After all, in her introductory essay Swift writes that amidst all the uncertainty of the past year she’s “clung to the one thing that keeps me connected to you all. That thing always has and always will be music.”
The piano decelerates but strikes more hopeful notes as the song enters its final verse. Swift catches her breath as she returns to the shelter of a cabin and, while she “couldn’t be sure,” she now has “a feeling so peculiar” that “This pain wouldn't be for/Evermore.” Where at the end of Lover she steps into the daylight and lets her trivial preoccupations and personal hang-ups go, at the end of evermore Swift steps out of the deep freeze of a winter storm and rediscovers her sense of optimism. For all our scars and wounds, all the loneliness and despair we feel, Swift reminds us that we can still find hope in the knowledge that none of it will last forever. Just as winter inexorably gives way to spring and summer, our pain can give way to wisdom, strength of character, and even happiness.
With evermore, Swift has managed to produce an album that captures and reflects our current long, dark winter. Indeed, I personally find it impossible to listen to the record in the present moment without thinking of the collective distress and individual grief wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic: hundreds of thousands of lives lost across our own nation, mass deprivation on a scale unseen in decades, dreams deferred indefinitely, and the simple absence of basic human contact that we all took for granted at the beginning of the year. When we’re as isolated as we all are this winter, these wounds and scars ache all the more.
It’s a testament to Swift’s talent and skill as a songwriter that her lyrics can at once remain intensely personal and yet speak to the universals of the human experience. She’s done so once again on evermore, with bleak winter landscapes yielding to the possibility of personal resilience and emotional renewal. While we can’t escape the pain and sadness inherent in the human condition, evermore reminds us that they’re transient and won’t last forever. That’s a ray of light we all need, not just right now but for evermore.