I am a huge fan of the surprise album drop! Why? For one, it’s really awesome to wake up on an ordinary Thursday morning and find out that one of your favorite artists is releasing an entire album at midnight!
Also, I feel like albums are creative works that are meant to be listened to as entire pieces – at least when it comes to singer-songwriters who put a lot of thought into each song. But because the music industry has traditionally favored radio singles and relied on big promotional tours in the lead-up to a major album’s release, individual songs often become the early focus of an album.
So in the case of past Taylor Swift releases, by the time the entire album becomes available, I’ve listened to the four radio and promo singles way too many times and I’ve lost perspective on those songs within the texture of the album as a whole.
But when a surprise album drops, you get to have the experience of listening to the entire album, start to finish, with every song fresh and new. This gives you a real experience of the album as a longer form of storytelling and an emotional experience instead of as a vehicle for radio singles.
With the surprise sister albums folklore and evermore (her eighth and ninth studio albums), Taylor definitely dives deep into storytelling.
Every album that Taylor has ever released feels distinctly different from all others in that she strongly leans into a certain musical aesthetic or storytelling theme (or both). Red and Lover were musically eclectic albums full of stylistic variety, but they were tied together with strong emotional themes. Other albums have favored a consistent musical style: Fearless and Speak Now’s country-pop style, 1989’s synthesized pop anthems, Reputation’s darker EDM bangers, and now folklore and evermore’s folk vibe. And yet, every album always sounds quintessentially Taylor with her ability to capture universal feelings while using the specificity of memory, the vulnerability of love and heartache, and the playfulness of words and sounds.
While most reviews of folklore and evermore have been positive, I’ve read a few that were written by critics who were obviously only familiar with Taylor’s most popular radio releases and seemed to think that she was trying to copy other folk artists with her “new style.” However, Taylor has always written across musical genres, and she has always written songs in this folk-pop vein. Some of those songs were never serviced to radio, but if you go back as far as songs that she was writing as a teenager, you’ll find many songs that could easily fit in on either folklore or evermore. I dare you to tell me that the musical style of evermore’s “Cowboy Like Me” isn’t reminiscent of Speak Now’s “Dear John” or that “Exile” couldn’t easily be a follow-up to Red’s “The Last Time” or that the ambient style of 1989’s “You Are In Love” doesn’t fit perfectly well with folklore’s “Peace,” or evermore’s “Coney Island.”
With folklore and evermore, Taylor collaborated on most songs with co-writer Aaron Dessner of the band The National. If you’ve watched the Miss Americana documentary on Netflix or the behind-the-scenes YouTube videos of Taylor writing music for Reputation or Lover, you’ll know that her process very often involves her initially writing a song by herself on guitar or piano and then bringing that unfinished piece into the studio to work with a co-writer and/or producer to finish it.
Due to the pandemic, these two albums were written differently. Most of the songs were created by Dessner sending Taylor instrumental tracks and then she would write the melody and lyrics over the top of the instrumentals. Jack Antonoff, a musician-songwriter-producer whom she’s also collaborated with in the past, contributed in this way too on several songs. I’ve been a big fan of some of the past Swift-Antonoff collaborations, such as “Cruel Summer,” “I Think He Knows,” “The Archer,” and “Call It What You Want.” Taylor’s real-life love, actor Joe Alwyn, was also a co-writer on a handful of songs under the pseudonym William Bowery.
After Taylor wrote and released folklore in August, she continued writing with Dessner and soon realized that she was creating a follow-up to the first album. In Taylor’s words, folklore captured the sounds of spring and summer, and evermore embraced the fall and winter.
For me personally, in the musical universe of Taylor Swift music, Red, 1989, and Lover are three albums that are hard to top, so I’ll start by saying that folklore and evermore weren’t able to nudge those from the top. But I really liked these two new albums a lot, with evermore slightly edging out folklore.
Taylor’s lyrical writing gets better with every album she releases – the turns of phrase, the play on words, and the heartfelt metaphors that capture the truth of a feeling. Musically, these albums are more subdued than her other albums, but that makes sense given that these are folk albums more than pop albums. I unabashedly love a good musical hook though, and Taylor is the queen of that, so I do miss that to a degree. Many of the Dessner tracks are very ambient in style and musically they loop. Therefore, some of the songs don’t include many musical changes in the arrangement. Still, the instrumentals are interesting sonically, and I’d wager that Taylor has a knack for writing a good melody over pretty much anything. Send her a loop of crickets chirping and she’d be like, “Guyyys! I wrote this song over the top of the crickets! You like it?” So does Taylor need to musically collaborate with any co-writers, like ever? No, of course not. But she makes it clear in the Disney+ concert documentary Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions (which she directed) that she loves writing music with other artists whom she admires. That collaboration provides her with inspiration. And both folklore and evermore certainly feel like highly inspired albums that tap into so many shades of storytelling.
They are both albums that I can listen to from start to finish without wanting to skip a single song (okay, except one… sorry “Seven” on folklore, but I find the key of the verses grating). Below, I’ll share the highlights of each album:
The 1 – Generally-speaking, I gravitate toward mid-tempo songs with a strong drumbeat (or in this case, a hand-clap). This song taps into an emotional sentiment that songwriting largely ignores. When it comes to the topic of love, most songs are about falling madly in love or crashing and burning with heartbreak. This song is about reaching a place where one has finally moved past the heartbreak to a point where the nostalgia remains but the ache is gone.
But we were something, don’t you think so?
Roaring twenties, tossing pennies in the pool
And if my wishes came true
It would’ve been you
In my defense, I have none
For never leaving well enough alone
But it would’ve been fun
If you would’ve been the one
The Last Great American Dynasty – A charming folk song about Rebeka Harkness, the woman who owned Taylor’s Rhode Island mansion in the ‘70s. The last part of this song is brilliant where Taylor twists it from a song about Rebekah to one about herself.
And they said
“There goes the last great American dynasty
Who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been
There goes the maddest woman this town has ever seen
She had a marvelous time ruining everything”
Exile (feat. Bon Iver) – This song is a gorgeous ballad about the end of a relationship. It has beautiful lyrics and a powerhouse bridge with overlapping lyrics between Taylor and her co-writer/co-singer Bon Iver. (She also co-wrote this with boyfriend Joe Alwyn).
I think I’ve seen this film before
And I didn’t like the ending
I’m not your problem anymore
So who am I offending now?
You were my crown, now I’m in exile, seein’ you out
I think I’ve seen this film before
So I’m leaving out the side door
My Tears Ricochet – This song is moving as a metaphor for the end of a relationship where the subject of the song is haunting her own wake and questioning why the one who caused her heartbreak is there “cursing her name” and “wishing she stayed.” It was the first song that Taylor wrote for folklore and if you listen to it with the knowledge of what went down with the Scott Borchetta, the owner of Big Machine Records, it takes on a whole other meaning. To quickly recap, at fourteen years old, Taylor was the first artist that Borchetta signed to his indie label. Together, they grew it into a powerhouse label with most of its value in Taylor’s back catalogue of music. Taylor has said that Borchetta was like a second father to her. I won’t rehash all of the details, but he wouldn’t allow her to buy her own song masters in an outright sale and instead sold them to her apparent nemesis Scooter Braun. There was a brief but controlled war of words online, and Taylor fell silent on the matter after that. That is, until “My Tears Ricochet.” Check out these lyrics and you can’t tell me it’s not about Scott Borchetta. Then watch her sing the song live on the Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions documentary and witness the pain that she still feels over this “break-up.”
We gather stones, never knowing what they’ll mean
Some to throw, some to make a diamond ring
You know I didn’t want to have to haunt you
But what a ghostly scene
You wear the same jewels that I gave you
As you bury me
And I can go anywhere I want
Anywhere I want, just not home
And you can aim for my heart, go for blood
But you would still miss me in your bones
And I still talk to you (When I’m screaming at the sky)
And when you can’t sleep at night (You hear my stolen lullabies)
This is Me Trying – It took several listens for this song to grow on me. It has a heavy chamber-pop sound with Taylor’s voice amplified to create a ghostly sound that doesn’t match the acoustic sound of the rest of folklore. But the more I heard it, the more it felt perfect. The song can be listened to as anthem to early overachievers who feel like they haven’t lived up to their own expectations:
I was so ahead of the curve, the curve became a sphere
Fell behind all my classmates and I ended up here
Mad Woman – A dark and eerie arrangement that captures anger on the edge of madness. Storytelling-wise, this could easily be related to the personal loss that Taylor speaks of on “My Tears Ricochet” or it could be a fun wink to Rebekah Harkness in “The Last Great American Dynasty” (or both). Regardless of her personal inspiration, it’s a great social commentary on gaslighting and feminism.
Every time you call me crazy, I get more crazy
What about that?
And when you say I seem angry, I get more angry
And there’s nothing like a mad woman
What a shame she went mad
No one likes a mad woman
You made her like that
And you’ll poke that bear ’til her claws come out
And you find something to wrap your noose around
And there’s nothing like a mad woman
Willow –This folksy guitar song has a very magical, dreamy sound to it. Taylor herself described it as a song about “casting a spell to make somebody fall in love with you.”
Wait for the signal, and I’ll meet you after dark
Show me the places where the others gave you scars
Now this is an open-shut case
I guess I should’ve known from the look on your face
Every bait-and-switch was a work of art
Champagne Problems – Co-written with her boyfriend Joe Alwyn, this song is a fabulous piece of storytelling about a woman who realizes she doesn’t want to marry the man she is dating. In the end, his family and their mutual friends demonize her for it. It has my favorite bridge on the entire album.
One for the money, two for the show
I never was ready so I watch you go
Sometimes you just don’t know the answer
‘Til someone’s on their knees and asks you
“She would’ve made such a lovely bride
What a shame she’s fucked in the head,” they said
But you’ll find the real thing instead
She’ll patch up your tapestry that I shred
Gold Rush – This catchy song sounds like a classic Swift-Antonoff collaboration. It could easily have fit in on the Lover album. Or add some electronic sounds to it, and it’d work on Reputation. It’s one of only two mid-tempo pop-dance tracks on the folklore-evermore sisterhood, and it’s one of my favorites.
I don’t like slow motion, double vision in rose blush
I don’t like that falling feels like flying ’til the bone crush
Everybody wants you
But I don’t like a gold rush
‘Tis the Damn Season/Dorothea – These two songs go together. Similar to the trio of songs on folklore that explore a teenage love triangle (one song from each person’s perspective), these two songs explore a romance between a man (or woman? It’s not specific) who has stayed behind in a small hometown while Dorothea has gone off to Hollywood and found fame. In “‘Tis the Damn Season,” the famous woman is home for the holidays and wants to know if her former flame will be with her for the weekend. In “Dorothea,” that flame watches her from afar on screen and in magazines.
(From “‘Tis the Damn Season”)
It’s the kind of cold, fogs up windshield glass
But I felt it when I passed you
There’s an ache in you, put there by the ache in me
But if it’s all the same to you
It’s the same to me
I’m stayin’ at my parents’ house
And the road not taken looks real good now
Time flies, messy as the mud on your truck tires
Now I’m missing your smile, hear me out
We could just ride around
And the road not taken looks real good now
And it always leads to you and my hometown
But it’s never too late to come back to my side
The stars in your eyes shined brighter in Tupelo
And if you’re ever tired of being known for who you know
You know, you’ll always know me, Dorothea (Uh-uh)
Ivy –This song explores the grief of an extramarital affair, and it captures feelings of passion, loneliness, and regret. I feel like this song could easily be listened to as a companion to “Willow.” Both songs have similar magical sounds, and “Willow” could be the beginning of the romance while “Ivy” is the end. Or perhaps it’s a follow-up to folklore’s track “Illicit Affairs” (these songs are both track 10, after all). It’s a beautiful song lyrically and musically.
How’s one to know?
I’d meet you where the spirit meets the bones
In a faith-forgotten land
In from the snow
Your touch brought forth an incandescent glow
Tarnished but so grand
And the old widow goes to the stone every day
But I don’t, I just sit here and wait
Grieving for the living
My pain fits in the palm of your freezing hand
Taking mine, but it’s been promised to another
Oh, I can’t
Stop you putting roots in my dreamland
My house of stone, your ivy grows
And now I’m covered in you
Long Story Short – This is the second of two mid-tempo beats that you can dance to on evermore. It’s a catchy, happy, triumphant song about finally reaching the right place in your life with the right person.
I always felt I must look better in the rear view
At the golden gates they once held the keys to
When I dropped my sword
I threw it in the bushes and knocked on your door
And we live in peace
But if someone comes at us, this time, I’m ready
Marjorie – The evermore album was released a few days after my brother-in-law passed away suddenly. This song is about remembering and still feeling connected to a late loved one, and it struck a personal chord. Taylor is singing about her grandmother Marjorie, but the lyrics in the first half of the song are relatable to anyone who’s ever lost someone they loved.
And if I didn’t know better
I’d think you were talking to me now
If I didn’t know better
I’d think you were still around
What died didn’t stay dead
What died didn’t stay dead
You’re alive, you’re alive in my head
Right Where You Left Me (bonus song on the deluxe version) – The verses have a classic country sound, and then it breaks into a beautiful chorus that highlights Taylor’s upper register. The meaning of the song is thoughtful, and it describes the emotional tragedy of being stuck in the moment where your heart was broken. The world goes on around you, but you can’t move past it.
Help, I’m still at the restaurant
Still sitting in a corner I haunt
Cross-legged in the dim light
They say, “What a sad sight”
I, I swear you could hear a hair pin drop
Right when I felt the moment stop
Glass shattered on the white cloth
Everybody moved on, I, I stayed there
Dust collected on my pinned-up hair
They expected me to find somewhere
Some perspective, but I sat and stared
Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, and film producer. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.