“The Green Light of Forgiveness” Glimmers at the End of Taylor Swift’s Dock in evermore

This Album Reminds Us that We Can’t Come out of the Darkness Alone

Sarah Woodard / 1.4.21

If Taylor Swift didn’t shock you enough in July when she traded in her usual meticulously planned album campaigns for the unceremonious surprise release of folklore, perhaps she managed to this time around with her second surprise release of 2020. On December 10, Swift announced, just as casually as before, that her ninth studio album, and folklore’s “sister record,” evermore would be out at midnight. Swift wrote, “To put it plainly, we just couldn’t stop writing songs. To try and put it more poetically, it feels like we were standing on the edge of the folklorian woods and had a choice: to turn and go back or to travel further into the forest of this music.” Fortunately for us, Swift and her collaborators “chose to wander deeper in” — and we are all better off for it.

On evermore, Swift once again leaned heavily on the help of Aaron Dessner of the National, Jack Antonoff, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and boyfriend Joe Alwyn (given the pseudonym William Bowery), who also returned to the fold. Evermore may be the first time that Swift has not tried to take an explicit jolt away from the sound of her previous album. Thematically and sonically, this album mirrors its predecessor. The same spare arrangements and slow-burning melodies that marked folklore the somber piano, finger-plucked guitar, haunting cello sounds, and Swift’s soft, mellifluous voice also characterized evermore. Swift also continues to tell folk tales imaginary and real stories alike, straying even farther away from the autobiographical stories of love found and lost that characterize most of her past songs’ lyrics.

Swift herself explained why she felt compelled to “wander deeper in” to the “folklorian woods” rather than turning, as she usually does, to a new sound and project: “There was something different with folklore,” she wrote. “In making it, I felt less like I was departing and more like I was returning.” In my review of folklore, I said that the album sounded like a painful and slow process of coming down on one’s knees and begging for spiritual renewal and redemption. On evermore, Swift seems so relieved to finally be on her knees in this holy/unholy surrender that she decided she would stay there a while longer.

In the words of one reviewer, “Now 31, Swift is enjoying a phase characterized by great unburdenings. She described her 2019 album Lover like a deep breath, and she has spent the 16 months since its release in a kind of elongated exhale.” In fact, evermore quite literally sounds like a sigh: it is stubbornly, doggedly unhurried. There is no sense of tempo or urgency. If anything, Swift revels in languorousness almost to the point of excess.

evermore boasts a Swift who is freer and more unburdened than ever before. Although the album bears many similarities to its older sister, it also is sonically looser and generically more experimental. “No body, no crime” is a full blown true crime anthem/country revenge song, while “gold rush” and “long story short” verge on the synth-pop that coursed through her 2014 album 1989 a sound she veered away from on folklore. Swift has never seemed more at home.

There is no shortage of heartbreak on this album, either. “champagne problems,” the second track, just about knocked me out with sadness. I was already crumpling after I heard Swift sing of the girl who “dropped” her boyfriend’s “glass” heart, but the punch came after she reveals the girl denied his proposal and heard the town saying, “‘She would’ve made such a lovely bride / What a shame she’s fucked in her head.’” … Ouch. Swift didn’t disappoint with her notoriously devastating fifth track this time either: “tolerate it” is from the perspective of one who knows her partner has grown cold and indifferent to her love and barely “tolerates” her very presence. In both songs, Swift reminds us that what could’ve been cause for “celebration” has turned to tragedy; indeed, as she sings, “now no one’s celebrating.”

“’Tis the damn season” and “dorothea” follow the same storyline of a pair of young lovers who continually yearn for a love undone by time, distance, and incompatible desires. The former tells the story from Dorothea’s side, while the latter is from the perspective of the boy. Dorothea took off for LA as soon as possible, while he stayed put in Tupelo. Coming home for the holidays, she cannot deny the old longing for her hometown lover and they briefly reunite, knowing all the while that she’ll still leave after the weekend. Dorothea regretfully considers that “the road not taken looks real good now” and observes that “There’s an ache in you put there by the ache in me.” Perhaps, for better and worse, love never dies; their desire for each other is inextinguishable and inevitable. Even if there is no future for them, they can’t put out the flame, and both are caught in a kind of endless, circular pain.

I would argue, however, that where folklore is heartbreaking, evermore cannot be fully labeled as such; it certainly is beset with its own heartbreak, some of which I’ve detailed above, but there is an immediate strand of hope in this album that the former lacked. Darkness, devastation, and sin brought Swift down to her knees in painful surrender on folklore, but in evermore, the light starts to come in even if only through half-open blinds. 

Comparing the album’s opening tracks makes this shift immediately obvious. “willow,” track one of evermore, does not have the same sad twist as folklore’s opener, “the 1.” Unlike in “the 1,” where Swift (or whoever this song is about) is left musing about love lost and “waking up alone,” in “willow,” she hears her lover “sneaking in” to the bed next to her, and gleefully declares she has found “the 1.” Chanting “that’s my man / Yeah that’s my man” repeatedly, Swift clearly likes the sweet taste of that phrase in her mouth. 

Most compellingly, her music video for “willow” opens on the scene where the “cardigan” video for her last album left off. “willow” starts with the same shot of Swift sitting at the battered wooden piano, facing the camera in her cardigan, hair still wet from the ocean. But her expression has changed dramatically. At the end of “cardigan,” Swift stares directly into the camera, breathing heavily with a forlorn look on her face. In “willow” her expression is instead one of intrigue and hopefulness. She looks down to see a glowing gold string in her lap and, smiling, follows it. The gold string almost certainly refers to a lyric from “invisible string,” the one unquestionably hopeful song on folklore: “one single thread of gold tied me to you.” The gold string does indeed lead Swift to her lover in the “willow” video. In the last shot, she and “her man” walk out of a dark room and into the glaring sunlight, hand-in-hand.  

On folklore, Swift divulges that “I didn’t have it in myself to go with grace,” but on evermore, she begins to see grace as a possibility, if not a present reality. “happiness” is *shocker* one of the saddest songs on the album, but it is also one of the most hopeful. Swift sings about trying to gain perspective as she processes a breakup, but for the moment she is still “right down in it” — angry, sad, and bitter. Addressing the ex-lover, Swift murmurs, “All you want from me now / Is the green light of forgiveness / You haven’t met the new me yet / And I think she’ll give you that.” First, I would like to personally thank Taylor Swift for her good taste in literature; the green light shining from Daisy’s dock is one of my favorite images from The Great Gatsby. More importantly, Swift imagines “a new me” that will be able to forgive. Spiritual undertones ring loudly here: only when we shed the old self and clothe our “new” selves in Christ can we find it in ourselves to “go with grace.”

Slowly but surely, Swift inches towards grace and, in one of her most mature lyrics to date, realizes that “There’ll be happiness after you / But there was happiness because of you / Both of these things can be true.” There is sadness now, but there is happiness to come. Even more hopeful than this future happiness, though, is the future forgiveness. On evermore’s final track, its titular song, Swift begins by singing, rather despairingly: “I had a feeling so peculiar / That this pain would be for / Evermore.” Justin Vernon then comes in. At first, their voices are separate and deftly different, but ultimately their voices come together and are inseparable, one and the same. Their intertwined voices reverse Swift’s earlier line and together assure us that “This pain wouldn’t be for / Evermore.” 

Evermore reminds us that we can’t come out of the darkness alone. We need someone who loves us deeply to take our trembling hands and lead us into the light. Where and when that helping hand might arrive, God only knows, but we can be more than hopeful that it will.