Trust matters more to Taylor Swift than we might ever realise. She wants it, fears its loss, doubts its presence, builds everything on it.
In character (much more common these days) or in true-to-her (or so we might assume) lyrics, Evermore so often turns on this. On a question of belief in another’s good faith; on circumstances failing in its absence; or clinging to the hope that someone somewhere might have retained something “real” of her, and with that, held faith in her.
One of the purest examples of it for Swift is in Marjorie, written about her grandmother (she wrote about her grandfather previously, in Epiphany, earlier this year on Folklore), whose presence and whose faith in her, remains foundational: “And if I didn’t know better/I’d think you were talking to me now … you’re alive in my head”.
Elsewhere, we’re talking trust within relationships, certainly, sometimes before it’s even questioned, as in the tale of infidelity that is a bluegrass-shaded Ivy, or when there is nothing but questions, as in the murder mystery-in-the-making, No Body, No Crime.
In the mid-tempo, wheezy percussion/light piano post-breakup Closure, the insincerity of asking after her health, the offer of closure, is battered away as “fake and it’s oh so unnecessary”.
Contrastingly, in the murmuring hum of Coney Island, sung as a duet with Matt Berninger of The National (all of the members of which appear alongside their bandmate, Swift’s co-producer and frequent co-writer here, Aaron Dessner), there’s a self-awareness from both figures that trust has been corrupted and they wonder “will you forgive my soul/When you’re too wise to trust me and too old to care?”.
But it’s also trust between friends, and between the past and present versions of yourself. This isn’t new of course. Betrayal, especially by a female friend whose perfidy was more hurtful than anything done by another limp boy/man, peppered Swift albums from the very start. And the zestful, eventually poptastic songs of the first half of her career reflected the refusal to succumb, replacing that with gleeful revenge and success.
However, revenge has lost a lot of its appeal, regrets have outweighed them more recently, and wisdom now comes with a cost.
One of the subsets of the songs in this year’s Swift albums – Evermore being the second of a pigeon pair with that mid-year Folklore – is what you might call the “you can’t trust anyone when you’re rich and famous” bracket.
A couple of times it appears from the perspective of someone who has left behind a small town or a close community of friends and wonders if anyone else understands the inner her, not the public persona. (Write about what you know, writers are told. So, yeah, let’s say it’s probably not unfamiliar territory.)
For example, here in Tis The Damn Season, the song’s narrator, who had “escaped” her hometown, is back at her parents’ house for the weekend after a bruising time in what might appear a successful life now laced with regret (“And the road not taken looks real good now”), and thoughts of the old ex flare up (“Now I’m missing your smile, hear me out/We could just ride around”).
A comforting replay of old haunts and habits ostensibly is all she wants and she tells him “I won’t ask you to wait if you don’t ask me to stay”. But whether it happens or not, “I’ll go back to LA and the so-called friends/Who’ll write books about me, if I ever make it”, and forever gnawing at her will be the fact that she’ll “wonder about the only soul/Who can tell which smiles I'm fakin'/And the heart I know I'm breakin' is my own.”
The parallel story to this character is in Dorothea, sung by an old friend left behind who has never minded that the town is “the same as it ever was” but is conscious that “a tiny screen’s the only place I see you now”, this shinier, successful old friend who is a “queen sellin’ dreams, sellin makeup and magazines”.
She wonders “are you still the same soul I met under the bleachers?”, assuming she’ll never know but still offering “if you’re ever tired of being known for who you know/You know, you’ll always know me, Dorothea”.
Not surprisingly, given these underlying lyrical directions, the slow-to-mid tempo, the partially electronic/partially warmly organic sonic bed and the still, internal atmosphere of Evermore is in keeping with Folklore. The two albums were after all written and recorded in one long continuous season of lockdown and creativity with Dessner and more regular writing partner Jack Antonoff.
So you’ll find songs brooding in half-light, like the crushed dreams of Happiness,;creeping up on you at half pace, like the very Neil Young-ish Champagne Problems' and once more Justin Vernon, of Bon Iver, duets with Swift on a song (the title track here; Exile last time) that naturally falls into a state of clouded mind and troubled soul.
Short version: if you’re hanging for the return of the breezy pop Swift, you’ll be waiting a while longer.
But there’s a brighter hue in places. Long Story Short has a direct line to post-Red Swift records in its outward-facing energy, though here it’s a classic Bryan Devendorf drum movement any National fan would recognise, paired with a mimicking programmed pattern, that drives it.
In No Body, No Crime, Swift extends the half humorous concept of the Dixie Chicks’ Goodbye Earl into a more complicated and joke-free tale of suspicion that bubbles with a ‘70s Los Angeles pop subtext - appropriately, LA’s pop family, Haim, are her collaborators here.
And while Cowboy Like Me hangs like a lonely wine bar pickup that denies regret (with Marcus Mumford quietly in the background as the echo, or mirror) there’s an elegant guitar interlude, somewhere between Mark Knopfler and Ry Cooder, that hints at open skies once dawn clears out the bodies from this bed of convenience. It is the trust of the unconnected you might say.
If there is one question so far unanswered that might yet be asked about Evermore it would be is it better than Folklore, or is it mere repetition? The answer is that’s the wrong question. To me these are two discs of one album, and that album is superb.