Taylor Swift’s new album, Evermore, is shaky from its first verse. “Willow” opens with a gently plucked guitar riff creating a seesawing sensation, and Swift compares herself to water and her lover to a boat. So far, so fine. But for the verse’s emphatic final line, Swift uses an odd simile: “Lost in your current like a priceless wine.”
So, okay, her man, not her, is now the water. But: Are priceless wines commonly lost in currents? Like, is Swift referring to the Veuve Clicquot recovered from the Titanic? Or is she envisioning someone purposefully pouring wine into the sea on an expensive dare? Maybe I’m hearing the grammar wrong—is it that she’s lost in this lover in the same way a drinker might get lost in a drink? I went to the lyrics-explanation site Genius for help. A listener had written that Swift was playing with the word currant, meaning a berry or dried grape. This theory didn’t make a ton of sense either. But as of this writing, 56 users had voted it up.
The lyrics of pop stars do not have to add up perfectly to be effective, and neither does the poetry of master songwriters. But there are many different kinds of illegibility. If listeners are unsure what Britney Spears means when she sings “Hit me baby one more time,” that’s because she doesn’t really mean anything at all. The line came from Swedish songwriters misunderstanding an English figure of speech, and it sounds good in the song. When listeners argue over what exactly Joni Mitchell implies about her man on “A Case of You,” the wine-themed classic Swift could have had in mind when writing “Willow,” it is a testament to Mitchell’s ambiguity and layered meanings. Good lyrics often work between words, conveying feelings that can’t be written down. Bad ones call attention to themselves for no good reason.
Swift’s lyrics have always mattered. Over the years, she’s crafted vivid scenes, coined elegant choruses, and wrung a saga’s worth of excitement from a scarf. All along, she’s also been happy to work within the nuance-shattering constraints of big-tent pop: Listeners could, for example, forgive her yelping about “This sick beat!” on “Shake It Off,” because the song (co-written by the “… Baby One More Time” guy) was so catchy. But in 2020, silliness has been banished from Swift’s agenda, and it’s begun to feel like she’s on the hunt for a Pulitzer. In July, her surprise-release album Folklore rebooted her sound with textured electronic folk music that put storytelling—much of it about fictional characters—at the center. Craft, smarts, and inspiration all came together for a moving, escapist listen. “Please picture me in the weeds / Before I learned civility,” Swift sang on the standout “Seven,” a time capsule from lost childhood.
Evermore offers the same sound as Folklore, its “sister record,” but without the spark. Aaron Dessner, the composer and multi-instrumentalist from the band The National, headed up most of the arrangements again. Folklore’s other architect, the pop producer and Bleachers frontman Jack Antonoff, gets only one production credit, to the album’s detriment. Swift continues to push herself to use surprising sounds and to tell stories that are outside of her own point of view. Some of the better songs are heart-stopping in a good way, but the bad bits are the parody that Folklore somehow avoided being. She aspires for gravity but often lands on easy sentimentality, kind of like a pet photographer shooting in black and white.
First, the good: Evermore’s highlights demonstrate that Swift’s best writing happens when she draws clear lines, makes strong arguments, and inhabits characters who burn with righteousness. In “Tolerate It,” a devastating note from one side of a dying relationship, the narrator describes how her acts of service (she even set the table “with the fancy shit”) earned responses as frosty as Dessner’s piano riff. The Antonoff anthem “Gold Rush” pulses with the relatable pettiness of resenting someone for being gorgeous; in the delectable chorus, Swift’s voice surges from sarcasm to desire. The sighing ballad “Cowboy Like Me” shows how Swift’s love for conspiratorial romances draws out her knack for detail and scenery. It even has a killer opening word: “and.”
The album contains other flashes of greatness, but they clash with moments of cringe. Sometimes, Swift thinks it’s clever to string together clichés: “Every bait-and-switch was a work of art,” she sings on “Willow.” Often, she mixes her metaphors until they’re mush, as when the dull “Happiness” asks, “When did all our lessons start to look like weapons / Pointed at my deepest hurt?” Repeatedly, she overexplains what the rest of a song already makes clear, as when she describes a rejected lover as “crestfallen” on the generally strong “Champagne Problems.” Then there’s “Ivy,” a thesaurus sing-along: “Your touch brought forth an incandescent glow / Tarnished but so grand.” Any editor might wonder if these are signs of first-draft work. The album appears to have tumbled out quickly, and the exuberant public reaction to Folklore could have messed with Swift’s quality-control calculations.
Even if that’s the case, Evermore’s flaws are signs of a dreary trend in Swift’s music. Lyrics can’t ever be evaluated separate from how they fit into a song, and the problem here is that the music often isn’t doing all that much. Dessner’s approach relies on eerie-sounding instrumental loops that putter along undramatically unless a songwriter or bandmate steps in to cause some productive trouble. This approach casts a mood but doesn’t express clear emotions, and it puts a particular kind of pressure on the vocalist. The National’s lead singer, Matt Berninger—who shows up on Evermore’s “Coney Island”—strings together impressionistic, near-nonsensical phrases to evoke the illogic of what goes on inside people’s heads. Berninger’s not immune to writing clunkers, but he’s also not trying to work on the level of literal meaning.
Swift, however, almost always tries to lay out big lessons and knowable feelings, and Dessner’s arrangements can cast an almost questioning light on such ambitions. Folklore nevertheless worked for a few reasons: the quality of the writing, the frequent injections of Antonoff’s rock energy, and the strong efforts to finesse Dessner’s sonic wallpaper into cinema. On Evermore, Swift seems to let Dessner just do his thing more. A telling example comes late in the album on “Closure,” whose electronic clangs and unusual time signature make it possibly the strangest song of Swift’s catalog. Swift’s phrasings are clipped and jittery—it’s cool. But her lyrics offer a straightforward screw you to an ex who wants to make nice. The music, all emotional between-space and intrigue, seems to demand something else from her words—or maybe it’s her words that demand something else from the music.
The greatest gaffe of the album is its brashest swing: “No Body, No Crime,” an anthem that channels a long tradition of country-music women imagining revenge on monstrous men. You can tell that Swift’s version, featuring the indie band Haim, was inspired by true-crime documentaries—a morally dubious genre of entertainment that often confuses concern for victims with voyeurism about violence. Neither Dessner’s studied rock arrangement nor Swift’s cutesy narrative conveys the deep pain and anger that elevate the songs that inspired this one. It’s a writing exercise gone wrong, and from most musicians, it could be played once and then forgotten. But when Swift sings, the world listens closely—even if parts of her music aren’t suited for too much scrutiny.