Taylor Swift does not write songs about her life. She lives to make it verse. Romantic escapades and public affronts so routinely make way into her work like she wills them to happen to put them together. Confession is the way she chooses to disclose, and confiding is the way she knows. For the enviously prolific songwriter, her gift lies in lyrical acuity, and the idea of closure comprises mining personal shame. She tells you as much as she wants you to find out. She shares as much as she hides. No artist in recent times has created and furthered her myth so adroitly and has been the parameter of her own work with such defiance.
In a way, her music is smudged with her fingerprints. This is not to imply the resoluteness with which she roots her work in her life but the freedom with which she lives through them. Charged with naked directness and torrid urgency, her songs are not an afterthought but the thought itself. They broadcast the uncorrupted honesty of a moment when blaming appears easier than taking it and withhold a stubborn grudge capable of shattering any performance of maturity. Growing up before us (even with us), the staggeringly popular pop star compensated for her inaccessible fame with accessible life experiences.
That is until this year, until she came up with two albums: Folklore and Evermore within a gap of five months. Apart from steering the course she is exploring, her latest outings — released uncharacteristically without fanfare — imprint her transformation as a person and in extension artist.
Back in July, the singer informed of her mid-pandemic album Folklore, 17 hours prior to its release. “I’ve poured all of my whims, dreams, fears, and musings into it,” she wrote. As it continues to feature in year-end lists and earn multiple Grammy nominations, she struck again with Evermore. Comprising 15 songs, it features old collaborators — Jack Antonoff, William Bowery (her partner Joe Alwyn), The Nationals’ Aaron Dessner, Justin Vernon is saved for the titular song and a better fate—joined by Matt Berninger, and the Haim sisters providing haunting chorus to a campy murder tale. She reasoned its existence with a sort of helpless compulsion- “To put it plainly, we just couldn’t stop writing songs.” Yet she is still preoccupied with themes she has spent a lifetime accumulating: lost childhood, infidelity, love gone wrong and lovers gone rogue. The loss of self caused by conditioning in Seven comes back with a haunting detail of that loss in ’tis the damn season and Dorothy. Self-destruction from being involved in a clandestine relationship in Illicit Affairs echoes in the accusation in Tolerate It. This time from the perspective of the one who is being cheated on.
But to think that the intervening five months did not leak into her work would be untrue. The longing to escape in Folklore (“Take me to the lakes where all the poets went to die/ I don’t belong, and my beloved, neither do you,”) is replaced by an embalming kindness, a cruel year such as this demands. At 31, Swift writes with the wisdom of knowing better and the liberation that comes with it. She acknowledges the futility of getting over someone by villainising them (“I can’t make it go away by making you a villain”) and accounts for her shortcomings even when she was the one who was left behind (“Were you waiting at our old spot/ In the tree line/ By the gold clock/ Did I leave you hanging every single day?”).
This transition is nowhere more evident than in the way Swift includes those who got away, this time giving them the dignity of remembrance. Her fixation with romance has been both her doing and undoing. It has been her destination and journey, her metaphor and message. It is what hurts her and what she uses to hurt. It is the prism through which she looks at things and even herself, an unlikely barometer of her own emotional evolution. Up until now, her routine emotional excavation bordered on fetishisation, revealing a cruel detachment to sustain her attachment with art. Evermore is evidence of the singer letting her guards down and for once facing consequences of her actions.
For instance, in Champagne Problem (written by Swift and Bovary) she carefully whispers the aftermath of being left at the altar (“Your mom’s ring in your pocket/ My picture in your wallet/ Your heart was glass, I dropped it”). Except this time she is the one who has left. This is the singer no longer saying- Look What You Made Me Do. Instead, looking at her bloody hands and acknowledging- Look What I Made You Do. The tenacity of this generosity is more ably tested by the time she arrives at the fifth song of the album- Tolerate It. A classic Swift number filled with allegations to the brim—“I made you my temple, my mural, my sky/ Now I’m begging for footnotes in the story of your life”. As her hurt pile up one after the other, she totters at the definitive juncture, ready to hurl all that she gathered: “What would you do if I/ Break free and leave us in ruins/Took this dagger in me and removed it/ Gain the weight of you, then lose it/ Believe me, I could do it.” And yet the jagged edges of her indictment is blunted by the tenderness of the vocals; the rising crescendo muffled with every ascent. It bears no vestige of the fight exhibited in its companion song My Tears Ricochet from Folklore.
One can assign the surrounding world losing its meaning or her onset into 30s as the reason for this percipience but Evermore marks the rise of Swift like we have not seen before. She creates more fictional characters but they all point to her. She muses over lost love and infidelity but in a different tone. Coney Island is a telling departure from Exile, challenging the curse of destiny with the gratification of togetherness, and Ivy turns disloyalty on its head by infusing it with the debilitating powerlessness of love.
Evermore then is a consistently rewarding album that pursues similar questions with clearer insight. Her self-awareness, exhibited right from Lover (2019) to Folklore, cuts to the bone here. Her generosity, which looked like compassion earlier takes the shape of empathy and comes full circle. This alone makes her latest an exceptionally timely work, a rare collectible we didn’t know we needed. Her changed perception, mirrored in recognising the redundancy of binaries when looking at life and love, colours the defining Happiness, a song I haven’t been able to stop listening to. If there is maturity in recognising that you were the villain in your story, there is infinite wisdom in conceding it was nobody’s fault.
Centered on a relationship which has ended (can be read as the one she was threatening to leave in Tolerate It), Happiness plays out like a course correction of her previous work, throbbing with the pain of parting without being infected with bitterness: “There’ll be happiness after you/ But there was happiness because of you/ Both of these things can be true”. Her magnanimity is most touching when she not just wishes him well but wishes for him what she wishes for herself.
In her exquisite review of Folklore, writer Laura Snapes observed Swift is fighting a fairer fight. It is December and there is no trace of even that; the album’s concluding song serving as a terrific send-off to this restraint. This time around, she looks at love beyond the fate of termination, acknowledging the gifts of staying instead. She is no longer lashing when stung by abandonment but using the pain to craft a newer version of herself: one who sees the futility of closure, is capable of forgiving and has grown up enough to give growing up a chance.