Taylor Swift is arguably the world's biggest artist. No one has more eyes on them than she does; no one has fans that fight for them as hard as she does. After more than a decade of dominating the pop music zeitgeist, she's cemented herself as one of the world's leading musicians and songwriters, with fans dissecting every nook and cranny of her public presence for clues about her new music. So, for her to pull off a surprise album release less than a year after its predecessor is impressive.
For her to do it twice in a row is nothing short of a miracle.
Swift refers to both July's folklore and December's evermore as sister albums: torn from the same cloth; fallen from the same tree. But, while both albums focus heavily on Swift's ability to song write in a traditional sense and come lacquered in fantasy and whimsy, they are very much distinct albums. Putting them side by side, you can pinpoint what distinguishes one album from the other, and what makes one better or worse. That's why I'm sitting down and trying to determine once and for all – is folklore or evermore my personal favourite?
To do this, we need to break each album down categorically. There's the songwriting (obviously) and the production, but there's all the features, the lead singles, each album's best song and – of course – the infamous fifth track.
Taylor's biggest strength is her songwriting, there's no doubt about it. While her voice is beautiful, it's elevated by the emotion it contains; singing words from her own pen. And while historically she's used her songwriting as a form of deeply personal expression, documenting issues she's dealt with in her own life, both folklore and evermore see her become a storyteller for other people – and it's worked a charm.
The storytelling in both albums is undeniable, with Swift's words completely transporting you to a place you've never been before. In folklore, it's far more romantically-focused, telling grandiose stories of love and love lost in another universe. There's "the last great american dynasty", a story of real-life socialite Rebekah Harkness and her late husband. There's "seven", a story of two friends written from a child's perspective. In fact, she had previously revealed that she even fit an entire trilogy within the album's tracklist – with fans suspecting "cardigan", "august" and "betty". The story, what Swift calls the 'The Teenage Love Triangle', focuses on three characters: James, Betty and Inez.
In contrast, evermore is far more grounded in our reality and the hardships the world has endured in 2020. There are songs about loneliness, violence and even death. folklore is a quarantine album, but evermore is an album about quarantine. The pandemic had a far-brighter face in July than it does in December, especially in the US. While evermore still touches on the glittering romance that lacquers its elder sister, Swift feels more involved in the stories she's telling this time around. "What died didn't stay dead / You're alive, you're alive in my head" she sings on the heartwrenching "marjorie", a tribute to her late grandmother of the same name. But, on the titular final track, after bleeding so much and exploring so much pain, Swift resigns herself to believing that it's not going to be around forever. The rose-coloured escapism of folklore can only get you so far, but it's the tough reckoning with reality that will allow us to truly progress. It's a lesson not everybody learns, but one Swift did throughout evermore – making it the stronger example of her personal journey within stories about other people.
The production across both folklore and evermore are certainly cut from the same cloth, thanks to The National's Aaron Dessner. Jack Antonoff can produce a hit for literally anyone – and, historically, he has – but here his deft touch takes a slight back seat in way of a more sombre tone. In stark contrast to albums like 1989, Reputation and Lover – all of which were filled with stadium-ready pop tunes – the production on these two albums required more finesse and restraint to ensure Swift's storytelling took the spotlight.
folklore matches its romantic fantasy with brooding production completely propelled by slippery piano keys. They roll in delicately, immediately from opening track "the 1" and never really stop throughout the album. The drum line on "cardigan" feels distant yet omnipresent, which has alway been one of Dessner's key wares. There's still climactic moments, though. The build-up on "my tears ricochet" is one that encompasses you fully before exploding in string-led glitter. Fans are reminded of the Swift of yesteryear on "betty"; a song that feels more akin to her country roots than anything we've heard from her in a long time.
But once again, evermore takes that production and completely elevates it. It's more experimental and more exciting; incorporating more of the bombast we've come to expect from the artist in recent years. From the moment those side-stepping guitar strums of "willow" invite you in, fans know they're in for an adventure of a different kind. The pulsating beat of "gold rush" against its lush stringline feels ethereal and atmospheric. It also contrasts completely with the blood-soaked twang of "no body, no crime" – one of Swift's darkest offerings to date.
folklore marked another U-turn in Swift's sonic oeuvre, but evermore helped bridge her past with her present (and ultimately, her future).
Taylor Swift approaches features with caution. She's no stranger to collaboration, of course, but it takes a winner to make it onto a TS tracklist with 'feat.' in front of their name. However, the very crux of these two albums relies on collaboration, considering she's telling stories that aren't her own.
evermore has more collaborations, of course. There's the barely-present HAIM on "no body, no crime" – using Este Haim as the main character of the story. While their input is minimal, it remains crucial. Their notoriously summer-filled vocals help add just enough warmth to a song that's otherwise cold and cruel. However, on "coney island", which features the entirety of The National, Swift's duet with Matt Berninger feels a touch too dreary. They hit melancholy fine, but Berninger's voice benefits over production that pushes a little harder, and the rolling strums that anchor "coney island" weigh it down too much.
folklore only has one feature: Bon Iver. Justin Vernon joins Swift on evermore's closing, titular track, using his voice in the airy, high-pitched way most of us know him. Considering the production is his bread and butter, his voice sounds right at home and surprisingly matches Swift's sharpness and clarity line for line, offering a heart-racing juxtaposition. On folklore's "exile", however, Vernon offers a deeper vocal to match the sullen tone of the song. He opens with the words "I can see you standing honey / With his arms around your body" with a delivery so bass-filled that it takes you by surprise. But, as the song draws on, it slowly builds with a passion and vigour that we're not used to. On the song's climactic final chorus, both artists sing their heart out, making for one of Folklore's most magical moments.
While evermore has two more features than its older sibling, the dullness of "coney island" drags it down. Remove it from the equation, and we're left with three incredibly strong – and unique – collaborations that mirror Swift's energy well.
As it stands, both folklore and evermore only have one music video to be pulled from each of them, for each of its lead singles.
Evermore opens with its lead single, "willow". Understated and honest, it's bewitching from start to finish, sparkling with delicate glockenspiel and flute. The emotion she packs within its lyrics – desperation, submission, desire, excitement, intrigue – makes it feel like a subtly flowing stream of consciousness. "Begging for you to take my hand, wreck my plans, that's my man" is a line of cemented love if Swift's ever written one, though it doesn't escape some questionable faux pas, like when she promises she'll "come back stronger than a 90s trend".
On the other hand, folklore's "cardigan" is a gorgeous piano-led effort that consumes you with its wonder. The tapping sound, mimicking the heels on cobblestone that Swift sings about in the song, whisks you away to Swift's folklorian wonderland. But, just as Swift sings about someone taking her hand when no one else would, she ensures that she'll offer the listener the same courtesy. It's a song ultimately steeped in heartbreak and pain, but Swift still shimmers among its cloudiness. She serves as her own beacon of hope; and as ours, too.
As I've said, both folklore and evermore she stories that aren't so deeply entwined with Swift's personal life. Turns out she has a knack for this type of storytelling, as both albums' best tracks tell stories of characters in other worlds, whether they be fictional or buried deep in the past.
On "no body, no crime", Swift tries her hand at a revenge country anthem, and pulls it off without a flaw. The song is about Este Haim – albeit a fictional version – who finds out her husband is cheating on her. She confronts him, and he murders her – perhaps gesturing to the surging rates of domestic violence during the pandemic. Este is replaced by her husband's mistress, who at this point has moved in, and Swift's character avenges her late friend by, in turn, murdering her husband. It's a song that thrills you the same way Gone Girl did the world upon its release, and Swift pulls off the ire needed to commit such an act with amazing conviction. She tells the tale of how she did it – "Good thing my daddy made me get a boating license when I was fifteen / And I've cleaned enough houses to know how to cover up a scene" – and you can hear the rage, the wryness and even the fear quake through her delivery. It's cinematic in its themes and in its delivery, with HAIM's backing vocals not only giving a voice to the song's victim, but helping to relay a message of strength and solidarity among women. It's the Thelma & Louise style of power that Swift's discography has aimed toward, and she's pulled it off perfectly.
Conversely, "the last great american dynasty" tells an incredibly specific, and largely factual, story. It's the story of 20th century socialite Rebekah Harkness, who became one of the wealthiest women in America after she inherited the wealth of her late husband. Harkness was vilified by the press, and Swift regales the story as if it's actual folklore, like a grandmother to her grandchildren. There's talk of lavish parties, the founding of the Harkness Ballet, filling swimming pools with champagne and stealing a neighbour's dog and dying its hair green. The way the song builds into its surprise twist ending – which we won't spoil for you in case you're unaware – acts as a mirror to how Swift herself has been vilified in the past. She even makes a point to deliver slight inaccuracies in her storytelling (eg. Harkness cleaned her pool with champagne as opposed to filling it, she stole her neighbour's cat as opposed to a dog) to show how gossip leads to falsehoods. Where "no body, no crime" teaches its singular villain a lesson, "the last great american dynasty" poises society as the villain, and asks us to take a good hard look at ourselves (with all this over a pop-driven yet delicate melody). Most of evermore is more grounded in reality than folklore, but "the last great american dynasty" is Swift staring at those who tried to bring her down and giving them an ever-so-sly finger. It's a story of revenge in that, despite all that was thrown her way, she managed to thrive. Not only is it the best song on folklore, and better than any song on evermore, it's one of the best songs she's ever written; a testament to her acclaim as one of the world's greatest living songwriters.
Unlike albums by literally any other artist, the most important song on a Taylor Swift tracklist isn't the opener, or the closer, or even necessarily the lead single. It's the infamous fifth track, which Swift reserves for her most gut-wrenching and emotionally devastating writing. And, always one for tradition, she continues that theme across folklore and evermore.
The title of "my tears ricochet" alone warns listeners they're in for a bleak ride, even more so when you learned that it was written after Swift watched Marriage Story – a powerful character study centred around a couple going through a divorce. On paper, it's a song written from the perspective of a literal ghost ruminating on a relationship lived when they were alive. But, once you dig deeper, it's a reflection of Swift's experience with and exit from Big Machine Records, a scandal that has permeated her career for the past two years. The song matches that chaotic snowballing of pain and hurt inflicted upon the singer by Scott Borchetta and Scooter Braun, as she wonders how on earth this could've been done to her. "Even on my worst day, did I deserve, babe / All the hell you gave me? / Cause I loved you, I swear I loved you / Til my dying day." It builds to an orchestral crescendo, as Taylor's tears circle the sky. It's an outpouring of grief, heartbreak and asking questions Swift knows she'll never hear the answer to.
The heartbreak that "tolerate it" explores, however, is a sneakier variant. Not as venomous or as explosive as "my tears ricochet", "tolerate it" is about the unbearable hurt that comes with indifference. Swift sings of how she outpours her love in the most intense of ways, giving her lover every undeserved benefit of the doubt just to cling to the love she feels, only for that lover to never reciprocate that same passion – "I made you my temple, my mural, my sky / Now I'm begging for footnotes in the story of your life". It becomes this cycle where Swift recognises the issue – "I know my love should be celebrated" - but she can't break free – represented by the opening and closing lines both being "I sit and watch you". Whereas "my tears ricochet" was a swift punch to the gut, "tolerate it" is the slow-building pain you don't even register until it's too late.
It's fair to say that Swift rarely misses with her Track 5s. Both songs traverse heartbreak in different ways, but both feel deeply relatable in their extremities and their subtleties.
OVERALL WINNER: Tie
Once the gold dust has settled on this turbulent and invigorating era of Swift's career, it'll become apparent that these two albums are a package deal. Where folklore lacks in its overall songwriting and production, it makes up for in individual moments that will become shining milestones in Taylor Swift's already immense legacy. evermore offers a more complete and well-rounded experience. When it comes down to it, it's impossible to choose which album is better because they're intrinsically linked. Both written during a pandemic, both pushing Swift's storytelling skills to a new level. They'll serve as earmarks for 2020 in music and signify a turning point in her career.
Taylor Swift has given us all of herself that she needs to, and now she's exploring the world around her. Hoisted up by Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff, Swift is preparing to take flight; with folklore and evermore as the wings that will let her fully flourish.
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