Review: Taylor Swift’s latest albums hold Wisco roots

 Taylor Swift truly blessed her fans this year by gracing two sister albums for them to enjoy: folklore and evermore. Swift is notorious for always writing or co-writing all of her songs and creating lyrical masterpieces, folklore and evermore are no exception. The albums delve into a different style for Swift, a richer, deeper, more precise album with folk melodies and gentle, soft instruments that linger in your mind long after hearing the songs. 

In folklore, we listen to Swift sing about two young lovers in betty, cardigan, and august. Swift’s soft, whimsical voice in cardigan forces you to feel every bit of pain from Betty’s perspective as she recalls her old fling, James. August follows the love affair between James and an unnamed girl, and the innocent longing the unknown girl feels for him. Swift jumps into James’ perspective in betty, singing about James’ apology to Betty after the affair with the august girl. Swift said she created these characters to tell a story with and named them after her friends’ kids. This is a different yet welcomed change from the singer, who wrote based off personal experience in her past albums. The difference in perspective also appears in illicit affairs, where the narrator of the story longingly tells her forbidden lover: “don’t call me kid, don’t call me baby.” The bridge makes us feel like Swift is singing from experience, when she is actually singing from the perspective of a character she has created. This just adds to the wide variety of talent Swift possesses. In exile, Swift and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, sing to each other passionately about their failed relationship, an experience that neither share together. Swift said she just enjoys writing breakup songs. 

Swift and Vernon, hailing from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, worked together on both folklore, and its sister album evermore. Swift and Vernon continue with the character theme in evermore, where Swift sings about a cheating husband getting what he deserves in no body, no crime and ivy, where the character is torn between her betrothed and another man. She also demonstrates this in champagne problems, where a woman who denies a marriage proposal is deemed to have “champagne problems,” when she really struggles with a mental illness. Swift describes the two albums as “sister albums,” and proves just how close they are. Both have folk roots, both have an array of beautifully crafted characters, and both feature Wisconsin’s very own Vernon. Vernon and Swift co-wrote a large number of songs on both albums, and collaborate vocally on a few, as well. Exile from the folklore album features both musicians singing back and forth to one another, and they do the same on evermore’s title song. 

 With the pandemic and social distancing being in play, Vernon and Swift recorded their song exile in different places, Vernon recording his part in his Fall Creek, Wisconsin studio, April Base. Alongside Vernon, Swift also co-wrote with Aaron Dessner, who shares a band called The National with Vernon. Swift also features The National on her song in evermore called coney island. It is unknown whether Swift recorded any of her songs in Wisconsin, but we know for sure that Vernon did. Either way, folklore and evermore have a small bit of a Wisconsin touch from Vernon, and considering how beautiful both albums are, we can take that as a giant compliment. 

—Adeline Holte, Intern

A little over four months after the surprise release of her last album, folklore, Taylor Swift released her second surprise album, evermore. Much like the preceding “sister” album, this album dives deep into her folk roots while embracing the songwriting that many of Swift’s fans miss from her country days, and something that has been somewhat buried since her Fearless album. While folklore and evermore stylistically stray a bit from recent releases, such as reputation, 1989, and Red, the narratives of love, loss, and healing are as present as ever over the course of these 15 tracks. 

This album has a lot of highs, but also some real lows. It seems as though Swift was struggling to focus on just what she wanted this project to be. However, it is apparent that as a songwriter and performer, she is going for a more mature, indie feel. Features from HAIM, the National, and Justin Vernon, bring some interesting sounds to interrupt our expectations based on what we are used to hearing from Swift. Overall, I would say this album is a success, not only from a musical perspective, but also from a creative one. Since her jump from country to pop, Swift seems to have lost some of her originality, but this album, especially paired with folklore, helps bring that front and center again. 

In the lead-off track, “willow”, Swift utilizes nature metaphors to reflect on a past, toxic relationship. Lyrics such as “The more you say, the less I know”, reveals a relationship built around mistrust and deceit. Something that will certainly hit home for many listeners, as well as following up on previous themes in Swift’s discography. Utilizing gentle melodies and vocals reminiscent of her music prior to her 1989 album, this song brings back many of the themes and sounds that many have come to associate with Swift’s music. 

In a stark change of pace, the next song, “champagne problems”, lyrically details the immediate fallout for her ex after a declined marriage proposal. Champagne purchased in celebration is quickly turned into a coping mechanism, and we slowly see the expectations of the night devolve into a sad train ride home with a bottle of Dom Perignon, originally intended to be shared amongst friends and family. This song is a stark change of pace from the typical themes we’ve seen in her past music, of being broken up with or feeling lost in a toxic relationship, and instead makes herself the villain. Instrumentally, this song uses clear and simple chords to portray the mode of this kind of “chick-flick” narrative.

While the first two songs on this album are strong, and seem to have themes consistent with Swift’s repertoire, and styles similar to what she aimed for on this project, “gold rush” is a bit of a miss. It enters with an angelic, string and piano driven melody, but that is soon overtaken by a drum-led bass line, which dominates the rest of the song. Considering the somewhat rustic, folksy feel that Swift seems to be going for with this album, this song feels misplaced and perhaps a little over-produced. The lyrics themselves are rather simple and repetitive, especially compared to the intense feelings brought forth by the previous two tracks. This song is far more reminiscent of her more recent, electronic dance tracks than most of this album. 

Another song that I would consider to be kind of a dud was “coney island”, featuring The National. While this is a sad song, instead of eliciting emotion, it feels like it drones on for a while, trying to make a point, but never really getting to it. Overall, this is a pretty sleepy track that seemed better suited for a soundtrack to a movie or TV show.

We can see Wisconsin native, Justin Vernon appear on folklore’s “exile” with Swift, and similarly, the closing title track, “evermore”, is the only track that officially features Vernon/Bon Iver on Swift’s most recent album. On this track, he joins Swift with beautiful, almost stark vocals. Around the midpoint of the song, he appears with a very sudden shift in tempo and instrumentation. Upon doing so, he and Swift begin trading off vocal lines, creating this chemistry and emotion that results in strong feelings of passion that I did not expect. This track provides a great sense of closure, as it discusses moving on from the pain and emotional trauma that many of the tracks on Folklore and evermore address. 

Justin Vernon, also known as Bon Iver, was deeply involved in the production of evermore. Although he is only officially featured on the closing title track, “evermore”, he is also involved in the production of four other tracks, namely “ivy”, “marjorie”, “cowboy like me”, and “closure”. While it is most present in “evermore”, his appearances can be distinctly heard throughout various mediums, such as backing vocals in “ivy” and “cowboy like me”, as well as the triangle, drums, banjo, and electric guitar. Much of his work was created in his recording studio, April Base, in Fall Creek, WI, right outside of Eau Claire, WI. Vernon has become a superstar in his own right with the indie-folk scene, with his album, For Emma, Forever Ago, considered a rite of passage by many fans of the genre. 

Personally, I am not a big Taylor Swift fan, however, I do love Justin Vernon. Overall, I did enjoy giving evermore a listen, and I felt that this album had a better overall production, maturity, and songwriting quality than was provided to us on its sister album. If you are interested in looking into the production of evermore’s sister album, folklore, you can find a documentary recently published on Disney+. Meanwhile, if you are interested in exploring more of Justin Vernon’s work, I would especially recommend his albums For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver, 22, A Million, and his most recent full album, i,i. 

—Nicole Hansen, Intern