A track-by-track review.

Well, friends, here we are. For the second time this year, Taylor Swift has surprise-released an album. Conceived as “folklore‘s sister record,” evermore—Swift’s ninth studio album—comes from the same team as her other 2020 release and employs a similar release strategy. I once again awoke Thursday to thousands of texts, missed calls, emails, Twitter notifications, and threats from my neighbors to knock on my door so I’d wake up as I attempted to process this news in my mid-finals half-asleep haze.

Swift’s statement for the album, the first part of which is embedded above in her Instagram caption, suggested more of the safe—a welcome prospect considering folklore marked a personal best. She perceives this project as coming from the same universe (the same woods, really) as its predecessor, an unprecedented move from the preeminent master of massive, distinctive eras.

“Are you worried this is going to be, like, folklore: the b-sides?” a friend asked me late Thursday night, a few hours before evermore‘s release. Both he and I had every reason to be concerned about this, with the album’s remarkably quick turnaround and Swift’s own statements suggesting this might be salvaged from the cutting room floor. Another friend expressed concern that this might be her Dedicated: Side B moment, referring to this year’s middling release from the usually-unstoppable Carly Rae Jepsen. And while folklore, the b-sides would be far from the worst thing in the world considering the caliber of its parent record, Swift has proven herself such a gargantuan creative force that what would inevitably be a lesser version of folklore would read as disappointing at best.

Thankfully, Swift sidesteps this entirely, presenting some of the most boundary-pushing, experimental, and frankly weird music of her career. Where folklore felt immediate, its tracks having a lived-in “instant classic” quality about them, evermore refuses to open itself up to you. The work is some of her most emotionally evocative—no Swift album has ever made me sob this hard on first listen—but as a whole demands to be heard again and again to unlock its secrets.

track 1: willow

The album’s lead single, with an accompanying music video and a “dancing witch remix” by Swedish producer Elvira. “willow” opens the album feeling like an extension of folklore, exploring the same general sonic palate as its predecessor and centering on the all-encompassing nature of desire. The video, too, is a direct continuation of folklore‘s “cardigan,” beginning right where that video ended. It’s more or less what you’d expect from the album given its relationship to folklore and Swift’s own impulses, but this is anything but a bad thing. “willow” ranks among her most mature singles, and it leans into pastoral magical realism far harder than any track on folklore. The result is a fluttery, thoughtful, and at times giddy meditation on new love more immediately accessible as an opener than even “the 1” was a few months ago. [note: I won’t be doing number ratings on these as I did on my folklore review on account of the fact that I can’t objectively rate these yet]

track 2: champagne problems

“William Bowery” (revealed in folklore: the long pond sessions to be Swift’s boyfriend Joe Alwyn, surprising no one) makes his return on this track, the most quintessentially Swiftian on evermore. The first of a three-track suite in the vein of folklore‘s cardigan-august-betty love triangle, “champagne problems” tells the story of a woman who turns down a proposal at Christmas. Something Swifties hold dear about Swift is her propensity to write emotionally destructive bridges, and this features arguably her most cathartic one since “All Too Well.” When Swift sings “she would’ve made such a lovely bride / what a shame she’s fucked in the head,” it feels like an exclamation point on a lifetime of relentlessly vulnerable songwriting. Set over a sparse piano line presumably written by Alwyn (he wrote the central piano line on “exile”), the entire track places Swift’s songwriting front-and-center, resulting in one of the rawest tracks in her discography.

track 3: gold rush

On “gold rush,” it becomes clear that evermore is a wholly different beast from folklore, much more willing to indulge in abrupt tonal shifts and bizarre modulations than its predecessor. The lyrics are reminiscent of reputation‘s “Gorgeous,” albeit markedly more mature. She’s obsessed with the idea that everyone is trying to steal her man (which, given he wrote “exile” and “betty,” fair) and waxes poetic over their love, oscillating rapidly between four-on-the-floor refrains and dreamy verses that float above the song’s otherwise-propulsive beat.

track 4: ’tis the damn season

Admittedly, I was skeptical about this track after I saw the title. The phrase “’tis the damn season” doesn’t exactly fall naturally off the tongue, and the yuletide context seemed a bit jarring. I’m happy to admit, though, that I was egregiously wrong, as “’tis the damn season” manages to sound natural in context and has a relationship to the holidays pretty much limited to the opportunity they provide for homecoming. If not a direct retelling of “champagne problems,” there’s an obvious conversation between the tracks’ melancholy holiday settings and tales of impending heartbreak. Ostensibly from the perspective of the character Dorothea (more on her later), Swift sings about the all-too-relatable feeling of reconnecting with an old flame when coming back home for the holidays. She even gets in a reference to meeting up in a church parking lot. Stars: they’re just like us!

track 5: tolerate it

Taylor Swift has once again chosen violence. Her track 5s are traditionally among the most emotional of their parent albums, with such acts of emotional warfare as “All Too Well,” “Dear John,” and “White Horse” among their ranks. That said, “tolerate it” just might be her most violent yet, with deeply vulnerable lyrics general enough to apply to situations ranging from relationships to friendships to parental trauma but specific enough to punch you in the gut and then point and laugh at you while you’re doubled over in pain. I rarely find myself shedding tears at Swift tracks on first listen, but this track—a perfect storm of some of Swift’s most ethereal and evocative vocals, the aforementioned deranged lyrical content, and a flawlessly-sculpted melody—left me ugly sobbing the first time I heard it. Proceed with caution.

track 6: no body, no crime (feat. HAIM)

Despite Swift’s apparent vendetta against collaborating with women rearing its ugly head yet again on this track as she delegates HAIM to background-vocal duty, “no body, no crime” is an album standout. In the vein of “Goodbye Earl” or “Two Black Cadillacs,” this country track sees Swift exacting murderous revenge on a cheating husband (specifically Este Haim’s cheating husband, who I believe she fabricated just so she could sing Este’s name repeatedly on this?). It’s an absolute blast, if not the most inventive track in either artist’s discography—but why reinvent the wheel here?

track 7: happiness

In the comments for the Youtube premiere of “willow,” Swift revealed that this track was the last one written for the album. What’s more, she wrote this last week, proving once again that she’s absolutely ridiculous. Contrary to what the title might have you believe, this song is really fucking sad, a 5+-minute meditation on nuance and acknowledging the happy moments in the darker times in one’s love. It’s not as aggressively and masterfully tragic as “tolerate it,” but I find it hard to critique anything in this track that is sure to soundtrack many main character moments for listeners this winter.

track 8: dorothea

Remember when I said we’d come back to Dorothea of “’tis the damn season” and maybe “champagne problems” fame? Well, here’s her in the titular role, as the song’s narrator sings her praises on this firmly country track (!) over an instrumental calling back to Dessner’s work on The National’s “Carin at the Liquor Store.” This track is gayer than “betty,” which is just as shocking to you reading it as it is to me writing it. Just like its namesake character, “dorothea” is endlessly charming, firmly rooted in nostalgia without ever feeling like a retread for Swift.

track 9: coney island (feat. The National)

“coney island” sounds about how you’d expect a Taylor Swift x The National song to—it’s demure and wistful, just saccharine enough to avoid being too Tumblr-core. The track sees Swift and The National’s Matt Berninger trading lines that hearken back to the formative moments of relationships past. Keep an eye out for the bridge, which sees Swift quietly and smartly recounting her own relationships, with nods to iconic ex-boyfriend stories like Jake Gyllenhaal ditching her birthday party and Calvin Harris’ pointed omission of Swift’s name in a speech accepting a GQ award. “Mature” seems to be the operating word for much of this album, and arguably nowhere is that more evident than on “coney island.”

track 10: ivy

This one’s a contender for my favorite Taylor song of all time. A shimmering depiction of the “dwindling mercurial high” of infidelity Swift described on folklore‘s “illicit affairs,” “ivy” contains some of the most beautiful melodies of her career. The track sees her really embracing the woods of it all, making frequent references to nature, dreamlands, the cold, and of course, the titular ivy. Swift also seems to have just discovered the word “goddamn” while writing this track, dropping it five times in this track alone. On first listen, this feels like evermore‘s “invisible string,” but the work “ivy” does is markedly more subversive, bursting at the seams with desire, yearning, and pain. I wanted to write more on this, but I’m simply finding it hard to create a coherent Thought as a result of listening to this song on loop.

track 11: cowboy like me

The one-two punch of “ivy” and “cowboy like me” almost did me in. This mournful track with backing vocals by Marcus Mumford calls back to a vintage country aesthetic artists like Orville Peck have made a career out of. She’s doing a sort of Patsy or Willie drag here, playing with country tropes of a past long-gone and being an outsider in a room of “rich folks” who outrank you by miles. What results is one of her most purely mournful songs ever. In completely unrelated news, I’m finally going to watch Brokeback Mountain soon.

track 12: long story short

This is the real wild card of the album. A startlingly upbeat track, my first reaction to it was that it sounded like a Bleachers song—weird, since this was a Dessner track that Antonoff didn’t even touch. I’m beginning to worry that Swift and Antonoff are starting to morph into one being. The lyrics here call back to reputation as she describes the trials and tribulations following her 2016 “cancellation” and the solace she found in her relationship with Alwyn. In the context of the album, the rollicking song is definitely jarring, but it’s so much fun that it’s hard to care.

track 13: marjorie

And just like that, we’re right back to violent sadness. “marjorie” sees Swift paying tribute to her late grandmother, celebrating the lessons she learned from her and reflecting on how she’s managed to stay “alive in [her] head.” Past the immediate tragic content, the song features one of the most inventive musical moments on the album as it samples old recordings of Marjorie herself, an opera singer. It’s cleverly composed around the sample, beautiful in its own right but feeling elevated and completed following the introduction of the Marjorie vocal (notably, following the line “if I didn’t know better / I’d think you were singing to me now”). “marjorie” legitimately hurts to listen to, a testament to Swift’s masterful songwriting and emotional evocation.

track 14: closure

Over abrasive production by Charli XCX collaborator BJ Burton, Swift lets someone know she’s still pissed at him despite his attempts at giving her, well, closure. If “long story short” is the weirdest track in the context of evermore, “closure” is the weirdest track period, blending an industrial beat with a 5/4 time signature and a modularly composed piano/melodic line. It’s not as aggressive as one might think given the subject matter or the jarring introduction, but subversion like this is something Swift has always excelled at. “closure” is a thrilling omen for Swift’s future musical direction and perhaps the most compelling evidence that evermore is weird.

track 15: evermore (feat. Bon Iver)

One thing evermore does markedly better than its predecessor is its bookends. As I mentioned in my folklore review, that album’s major shortcoming is in its opening and closing tracks—typically mythologized strong points for Swift. “the 1” sufficed and is a great song in its own right, but “willow” outshone it in both areas. folklore‘s “hoax” was similarly a strong song but felt notably questionable as a closer. “evermore,” on the other hand feels final and cathartic. The inevitable comparisons to “exile,” her previous Bon Iver collaboration, do neither song justice, and “evermore” sees her incorporating Vernon’s feature in an unexpected way, employing a build that sounds ripped fresh from 22, a Million yet completely piloted by Swift’s own contributions. Even when Vernon threatens to take control of the otherwise-demure song, Swift asserts her own dominance, trading lines with him in a manner reminiscent of the “exile” bridge and providing the most serene moment of the entire album when she ultimately overtakes the song again to steer it home. It’s one of the most utterly overwhelming artistic achievements of her career, and it leaves listeners feeling like they experienced something singularly special, something that adds to the already-immaculate folklore rather than just trying to recreate it.

Theories are already coming up about a potential third album woodvale, and it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility at this point—which is terrifying. But even casting aside her future for a moment, evermore proves yet again that Swift is firing on all cylinders, sitting pretty at the height of her career and constantly asserting her artistic supremacy.