Taylor Swift has long been an ambient part of American life as the forefront/background soundtrack to millions of people’s lives, wrapped inside the discourse, for more than a decade. So when you hit that disco-y bridge in the synth-laden, dream build-up of “Gold Rush” on her latest surprise album, Evermore, you can see long car rides and parties that nobody’s going on or going to these days.
It’s impossible to divorce these twinned albums from their context: In six (miserable) months, Swift has dropped two surprise albums, the maximal tribute to under-promising and over-delivering. Both Folklore and Evermore are fresh and new and massive, something to be analyzed and joked about and listened to. Those singular Taylor bridges, with tossed-off lines that endure in isolation (“to live for the hope of it all / cancel plans just in case you'd call”), and a few of those The National-indebted looping stretches of music that grow on you are a reprieve from the drag of sickness, death, isolation, and the indefinite expanse of our stalled lives — the rare and blessed good surprise.
Evermore definitely serves as the eclectic mixtape version of its “sister album”: It’s more Taylor, more country, more synthpop, more…sexy?, more National (such that the National actually appears), more Bon Iver, more weird. There’s a “we have fun here” diversion into a murder song featuring one of the sisters Haim as a main character (“No Body, No Crime”); 1989-ish synthpop (“Gold Rush”); early ’80s, late-night country pop (the mature “Cowboy Like Me”); multiple tracks where the unique Taylor Swift mix of romantic narrative pop and wry observation meets National-style build (“‘Tis the Damn Season,” “Long Story Short,” “Coney Island”); and a full-blown Taylor Swift x Bon Iver song (“Evermore”).
Swift and the National’s guitarist Aaron Dessner have also figured out one unusual style that really, really works for her: what Dessner termed the pseudo-Irish folk of Folklore’s “Seven,” a form that reappears on Evermore in the song “Ivy,” swapping sad nostalgia about childhood pain and friendship for the sharp, gravitational inevitability of an affair, against that same folk treatment:
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
Like any 32-year-old woman of a certain stripe, I’m, of course, a fan, dating back to when “Tim McGraw” was on the radio and frat houses on campus (in Nashville) used to blast “Love Story.” I’m also enough of a Taylor fan to know that she’s long been a National fan: Over the years, she threw National tracks on big playlists she unfurled for Spotify, usually in pairs, and tracks from singer Matt Berninger’s side project EL VY, too. The thing with the National is if you know, you know: Their music is romantic, melancholy, on the perpetual verge or aftermath of social disaster, but warm in a technically complex way that rewards repeat listening. It totally makes sense that Swift — who is all those things, but with her own emphasis on fate, jealousies, and social observation — would be a National fan.
As Swift and Dessner have said about Folklore, it all started when she went to a 2019 National show in New York with Queer Eye’s Antoni Porowski (bearer of a T-shirt reading in blood scrawl, “NOTHING IRRATIONAL ABOUT MY LOVE FOR THE NATIONAL”). I, too, attended that show, what feels like centuries ago: The band played through wild pouring rain for an hour, with Berninger walking out again and again out from under the bandshell and into the audience, out of apparent sympathy, until the full crush of people walked out of the park and underground into the subway. I can’t really imagine that Taylor Swift stood, drenched in a dark Prospect Park with the rest of us, but she definitely did the thing any true National fan who’s also a writer would do: corner Aaron Dessner to talk about writing.
And the way that the National writes is uniquely suited to 2020: Dessner, often with his twin brother, Bryce, writes music sketches on guitar or piano and sends dozens to Berninger, who writes lyrics and vocal melodies with his wife. They pick the best, and the rest of the band, especially their genius drummer Bryan Devendorf, also contributes. It’s a collaborative process they can do from New York, Paris, Los Angeles, and Ohio. So the natural conclusion was going to be that Taylor Swift — an incredibly prolific writer obsessed with writing, a National fan, trapped inside her home — would seize the singular opportunity to work with the Dessners.
The resulting albums span all kinds of genres, but all bear the complex, singular (written) voice of Taylor Swift. Even on the tracks where you can hear the National’s influence, the songs still bend to the will of Taylor in deep ways. Take “Invisible String,” a classic looping Dessner guitar song turned into a classic Taylor Swift song about fate — but dented slightly and charmingly by the knowing, wry acknowledgment of imposed narrative on the gorgeous, self-created vista. “Isn’t it just so pretty to think,” she sings. Or “Long Story Short,” a classic catchy Taylor Swift song about regrets and growth undergirded by a weird National drum pattern, that promises some future where you can hear it blasted through big speakers in a public place with a lot of people.
2020 will be one of the worst years of most of our lives. Which is why I think it might be hard to explain to someone who wasn’t here for it why — for the people who really connected with Folklore and Evermore — these albums hit even harder and bigger than maybe the sum of their parts. The stuff that has offered any kind of big feeling of newness and immersion really stood out this year. That ranges from the expected (the Star Wars show) to the expected but shocking (that the NBA and MLB seasons were able to happen during the pandemic) to the total surprises wrought by quarantine (Verzuz and the endless expanse of TikTok). Even when things online have turned rocky and overwhelming, you can see the same origin point: that we all want something new and fresh — something external that matches the internal chaos of our lives, experiences (sincere or painful or goofy) where we recognize ourselves in something or someone else.
In 2020, for those who wanted or needed it, Taylor Swift delivered what used to be normal: last-minute plans, something to talk about, something to enjoy, something to stay up for, something that will endure, a good surprise.●