Taylor Swift released evermore today. This isn’t an album review by the usual kind of journalist who knows all of Taylor Swift’s past albums, celebrity status and public-private intimacies. I’m an aging British punk woman who usually likes that different kind of anti-social music. I’ve heard of Taylor Swift, but I don’t follow celebrities; I have neither the time, interest or memory to collect her and become a fan. But there’s something about the album evermore – released today December 11th 2020 that intrigues and impresses me and I’d like Taylor Swift to read my thoughts and keep on going. If anything in this review is incorrect, I apologise; I’m writing about an impression of evermore, not a show-off mug-up fact fest.
Why would Vim from punkgirldiaries review a 2020 mainstream album from a hugely successful American artist? Normally I wouldn’t, but one of the key aspects of punkgirldiaries is to focus on how girls and women have been involved in music since punk, and because of punk. I’m deliberately not researching anything to do with Taylor Swift in writing this so I have no idea how old she is, whether she ever played any punk music, what sort of background she comes from, her love life – it’s purely a response to the songs … a bit of analysis and appreciation of something well done.
2020 is a disturbing year, but it’s also been good for writing, releasing and listening to albums. Today’s release by Taylor Swift echoes the 2020 mood musically with lush but sparse instrumentation and a deadened spirit that haunts throughout. The album cover – do you still even call it a cover in the digital age? – shows Swift from the back view. Her hair is braided up in a French plait and she’s facing a world of trees and sky. Do you get it? She’s turning her back on you; you can’t have her and you don’t get to see her face … just be thankful Taylor Swift is letting you hear her songs.
There’s a long tradition of female songwriters writing songs about challenges in heterosexual relationships. Listening to those who came before punk – Joni Mitchell etc – the typical female listener can identify with that hurt, damaged voice, and the average male listener can feel protective towards the singer and think of himself as being able to step in and save the situation. If your sexuality or identity is different, there may be a mixture of the two or you may find such songs irrelevant. Taylor Swift’s voice is a pure, beautiful voice, but it is treated and produced to bring out that stereotypical ‘vulnerable yet strong’ quality which pleases the male ear and the record industry expectations of ‘female vocal’.
But we are now post-punk, after the #MeToo movement and with laws, policies and public pressure against sexism and the abuse of women. More women have been empowered, more women are making music; we know all about setting goals, avoiding the narcissists and the coercive controllers, don’t we?
Listening to evermore, it sounds like we know those things, we can name and recognise them but girls and women the world over still get caught up in power-traps, self-loathing and servility. It would have been good if the flow of Taylor Swift’s songs on evermore followed a basic narrative where love is followed by the trap, realisation … then the fantasy murder of the guy (sorry guys) and happy ever after. But no, this is not punk rock cartoon life, this is the complexity of love, hate, patriarchy, giving and needing. When one of those men says they don’t know what women want, it’s because women – like all humans – don’t want just one thing; they want at the same time all the opposites; to be strong, vulnerable, independent, cared-about, unknown, famous, powerful, free. Modern girls negotiate their way through these contradictions by being changeable and moving on; old women like me live with cats, fantastic friends and silly projects, but we still appreciate a bit of romantic nostalgia.
First track on the album Willow is a well-crafted track with interlocking guitars that shouts ‘coercive control’ through metaphor after metaphor… it’s hard to tell whether in the vocal line ‘my man’ starts with ‘make my plans’ at the start and develops into ‘wrecks my plans’ by the end. It’s one of those songs that if you don’t listen carefully, it sounds romantic – just don’t choose it as ‘our song’ if you want to stay healthy.
Champagne Problems starts with a distant old piano. Addressed to that bloke – ‘you’ again and implying the screwed-up shenanigans of rich drunk people in the public eye.
Third track Gold Rush sounds like the usual Taylor Swift I’ve heard on the radio; pacy, lush harmonised vocals and expressing what it’s like to have ordinary issues when you have to be the famous Taylor Swift every day.
‘Tis the Damn Season sees Swift sing of hometown, parents, truck tyres and the holidays. It’s a love story in USA context referencing Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Thankfully many of us Brits have seen those corny American Christmas romantic films so we know what Taylor’s on about.
Tolerate It sets up a power relationship between the older, wiser man and Swift identifying like a kid ‘begging for footnotes in the story of your life’. Coercive control-a-go-go again and deeply worrying.
Haim feature on No Body, No Crime, a narrative song that shuffles along with harmonica, slide guitar and twists the woman-as-victim into quite the opposite. I don’t think that Taylor Swift did actually kill a man but, as I said before, I’m not fact-checking.
Happiness is a song that records the moment of acceptance of moving on from a bad but compelling relationship by addressing her honey directly. The shuffling brush-drums, pizzicato string sound and high drones create a smooth atmosphere for the hopeful: ‘I haven’t met the new me yet’.
Dorothea is sung to a childhood friend now grown-up and famous; Swift takes on the role of the ordinary one who stayed in the hometown wanting the famous one to connect. I find it intriguing, as an ordinary person listening to a song by a famous person fantasising about being an ordinary person.
Coney Island features The National and is more of a typical aching love lost song, with the male/female lines sung in unison showing that the problem is exactly the same on both sides … and my guess is that they’ll probably get back together again.
Ivy is another song about a passion-connection with someone that isn’t her husband.
Cowboy like me is about falling for another fake-it-to-make-it wide boy. Swift considers whether conning the world in business dealings and conning yourself about love are the same things. With harmonica and twangy guitar again.
Long story short has the typical Taylor Swift vocal patterns, a rhythm track that fuses 80s and more modern beats and a positive vibe.
Marjorie continues with an almost industrial grinding pulse that pits politeness and power against each other. It sounds like Marjorie might be Swift’s mother, that there’s regret and a chasm between them that’s too late to mend but affection for past memories is powerful.
Closure has more industrial clanging in the background and has that contradictory thing where it’s saying ‘it’s over/closure’ but at the same time going over the details and feelings and reading his letter and then Telling Him What You Think.
Last song on the album and the title track, Evermore (feat. Bon Iver) defines the spirit of the whole thing. It starts with December blues, drenched with an unspoken Covid grief, reflecting and regretting all the relationship stuff that’s happened. There’s a wistful piano and stringed accompaniment that are just right for an ending. When the dual vocals come in, there’s a chance of hope – not the hope of reconciliation with the past, but because Taylor Swift realises that the pain and grief is not for evermore. A nice, calm ending that portents wisdom over self-flagellation. I wonder if Taylor Swift has got a cat yet?