HITS Daily Double


“Life is messy,” Rodney Crowell opined on his 1992 album of the same name. Following his divorce from fellow country progressive Rosanne Cash and at odds with fame after seeing his Diamonds & Dirt become the first country album to yield five #1s, he got real about the dead-ends, frustrations and self-reckoning he’d faced.

evermore, Taylor Swift’s midnight-drop ninth studio album, conjures many of the same snarls on the way to something akin to happily ever after. But where the then-42-year-old Crowell was confessional, the 31-on-Sunday songstress has opted to craft 15 songs that often operate as folklore’s “Betty” does: sung from the perspective of someone definitely not Swift or her immediate circle of friends. In the jaded, failed, thwarted and surrendered narrators, the singer nonetheless wraps her whispery voice around the same kind of suburban candor that once upon a time made Carly Simon such a siren for the ’70s and ’80s Upper West Side late 20- and 30-somethings realizing that not everyone wins.

Indeed, “’Tis the Damned Season” sees the girl with big dreams returning home for the holidays, determined to make L.A. work but willing to re-spark what was with the boy she left behind. Cooing, “I won’t ask you to wait if you don’t ask me to stay,” she acknowledges that it’s her California friends who will write books about her if she makes it but that he’s the only one who knows which smile she’s faking. Take the real wherever you can find it, she suggests.

It’s a fascinating crew: a young girl about to jilt the guy with his grandmother’s ring in his pocket (“Champagne Problems”), the two too-beautiful hustlers preying on rich old society types who fall in love (the early-Eagles-feeling “Cowboy Like Me,” with Marcus Mumford), the young girl suffering for an older lover (“Tolerate It”) and a cheating/murder/best-friend-avenging ballad serving up a Bobbie Gentry mystery (the crunchy, Neil Young/hippie outing “No Body, No Crime,” with Haim). Synths and string rise, horns appear, drum machines are abundant, yet this is a quiet record that derives its intrigue from how the characters move within their circumstances.

“Happiness” finds a woman at the end of seven years moving through what come with being dumped. “I pulled your body into mine every goddamn night/ Now I get fake niceties,” she intones flatly. “No one teaches you what to do when a good man hurts you/ And you know you hurt him, too.”

This emotional transparency evolved from Swift’s scorched-earth/pool-of-tears youth; these songs shimmer with possibility and ripple with conflict. And like folklore, evermore employs a lo-fi, watery sonic palette. Hypnotic, it’s music to light a candle by, pour a glass of red wine to and ruminate over life’s mysteries with. Or dream of the future you hope to create as the music wafts through the room. A companion for reckoning our mistakes, it can fill a long night or stretch of highway with insight missed in the heat of the moment.

There are no easy anthems nor cheerleading chants for high-school heartbreaks. Having grown up in public with her dating traumas dissected by the biggest high school on the planet, Swift has become a highly attuned student of the human heart. What we lose in ear-wormage, we may gain in compassion and clarity.

“Marjorie,” a glistening bit of sunshine, celebrates her maternal grandmother’s wisdom. Joined by Justin Vernon on vocals, Swift recognizes that death cannot destroy what was shared. That knowledge sparkles as she pours through the simple truths imparted by her late grandmother, whose voice is also featured.

On “Closure,” we hear a sprinkle of piano, some percussion-stacking, and strings sliding in and out. The singer denies the jilter his desired absolution over knife-cut beats. Maintaining tension, she runs through the letter received, offering the terse, staccato “I’m feeling better” and the very clear sense that he’s dead to her.

In spite of “Closure” and the larger body count, evermore is not a comeuppance. The percolating “Long Story, Short”—the closest thing to an actual single—starts there, tells the tale, but then Tay keeps moving, through the part that sucks, to discover that the ones who stick with it sometimes win. As the final verse concedes, “Past me, I wanna tell you not to get lost in these petty things/ Your nemeses will defeat themselves before you get the chance to swing,” offering a forward look that feels like the liberation of Taylor Swift.

If the pattern holds, it is the pretty things that are calling her; the deeply lonely “Coney Island,” with The National, and the title track, with Bon Iver, sift through the ways love doesn’t always win against momentum, life, being out of phase. Still, in their voices one senses that no matter the disappointment, whatever has been was worth the deep sadness sustained.

To chase beauty, to believe in—and lose—love is the only way to realize warmer dreams. Rather than writing a valentine or a poison-pen letter, Swift provides a cloud of all the hollow feels. Making it so lovely, it becomes something we can survive, the risk of falling far less lethal.