Just as she promised when announcing this music’s existence on Thursday morning, Swift’s “Evermore” is the aesthetic sequel to “Folklore,” an album released after a 16-hour heads-up in late July to resounding acclaim. Neato, boffo. The best thing about “Folklore,” however, was that it sounded surprising, too — its clean, quiet spaciousness giving Swift’s modest voice the opportunity to glow warmer and brighter than the bells and whistles that had been clanging and trilling in her songs since 2012’s “Red.”
On “Evermore,” the cleanest shot to the heart comes during “Marjorie,” an ode to Swift’s late maternal grandmother, Marjorie Finlay. “What died didn’t stay dead,” Swift sings over Kleenex-soft tufts of piano and plucked strings. “You’re alive, you’re alive in my head.” Any time Swift sings about family, listen closely because that’s when her songwriting reaches its most undeniable state of grace. As a superstar tasked with creating relatable pop songs, she knows that everyone has a bloodline to grieve. Intimacy becomes empathy.
The cruel twist here is that Swift’s greatest songs will always remind you how not-as-great the others are — and while “Marjorie” appears deep enough in the tracklist to nearly wipe your mind clean of the dozen songs that came before it, there’s no forgetting the lyrical wackness that befouls this album, including, “I come back stronger than a ’90s trend,” and “My eyes leak acid rain on the pillow where you used to lay your head,” and “We were like the mall before the Internet.”
How are we supposed to square those lines with Swift’s rep as the songwriting giant of her generation? That last one about comparing a dying romance to a dead shopping mall appears on “Coney Island,” an imbalanced duet with Matt Berninger of adult rock band the National. Maybe Swift thinks that collaborating with “interesting” people gives her permission to write bad lyrics? It would fun to look for a perverse joke in here, but we’ve covered that already.
On a related note, some housekeeping: Let’s stop referring to Swift’s 2020 output as “indie.” The word itself verges on meaninglessness these days, but many have superimposed it over “Folklore” and “Evermore,” mainly due to Swift’s recent collaborations with artists whose music-biz positions we should be honest about. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver is a two-time Grammy winner and the Peter Gabriel of his time. The National is one of the biggest contemporary rock bands going. Isn’t calling their music “indie” just a way of make-believing your tastes aren’t typical?
Swift’s music might be typical by design, but she is not. As this pandemic continues to decimate the livelihoods of countless independent musicians, Swift has sold more albums inside this calendar year than anyone else on Earth. It might be fun to hear her play the underdog in her songs, but don’t let the flannel get pulled over your eyes: She is one of the biggest beneficiaries of a music industry system that could not care less about the well-being of “indie” musicians right now. “Evermore” provides an opportunity to think about the roles we play in that system — as listeners, as users, as customers, as fans, as human beings.
Now who needs a hug?