Coney Island in the winter is a completely different place than during summertime, when it’s a brightly lit beachside amusement park.

In the song “coney island,” featuring The National, Taylor Swift brings her listeners to the wintertime side of New York’s infamous seaside paradise, inviting us to join her on a bench as she mourns the bitter end of a marriage and the end of a season.

One of the song’s best lines is sung by The National’s Matt Berniger, whose bass voice never fails to haunt. “The question pounds my head / What’s a lifetime of achievement / If I pushed you to the edge?” he sings.

Taylor Swift – coney island (Official Lyric Video) ft. The National

When it’s cold, Coney Island’s broken-down roller-coasters and abandoned boardwalk take on an ominous, almost post-apocalyptic feeling, which perhaps stems from the fact that Coney Island’s theme parks have burned countless times, and the place has always been as connected to hedonism and waste as it is to joy. Once, its boardwalks seem to whisper, there was a gold rush, but that ended a long time ago, and now we’re left with the bones of what has been.

This progression is a common theme on Taylor Swift’s evermore, an album filled with narrators who seem to have achieved their dreams of glory but have been left with a sense of brokenness. With its murder ballads and mournful Christmastime laments, “evermore” fixates on this beautiful post-apocalyptic energy — to mixed success.

Swift dropped the album a mere five months after releasing folklore, which became a massive hit and a saving grace in a difficult year. As the world slowed down and ground to a stop, Swift slowed down with it, retreating inside, as we all did, but managing to create something of beauty out of all the suffering. With its intimate storytelling and its unexpected and stunning folk stylings, folklore was a triumph.

The Good

Swift announced evermore the day of its release, branding it as a continuation of folklore, a journey deeper into the Folklorian woods. It’s not precisely that, however; it actually lacks folklore’s woodsy intimacy. Instead, it almost feels like a classic — albeit older — Taylor Swift album, with some of 1989‘s dreamy maximalism and some of the wry, tongue-in-cheek storytelling of the Fearless era.

When evermore works, it really works. Of course, there’s the music — crafted by Swift and the dream team of Jack Antonoff, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and The National’s Matt Berniger, the music is effervescent and ambitious, glitchy but never abrasive. It’s the work of musical geniuses with endless resources and talent at their fingertips, and it all sounds so easy. In that way, it’s able to transport the listener to a better world.

The Bad

Even so, evermore isn’t as gut-wrenchingly gorgeous as folklore was, and when listened to directly after folklore, it falls a bit flat. Part of this is because on evermore Swift punctuates truly poetic and timeless lyricism with occasionally distracting, cringe-worthy lines like, “‘Cause we were like the mall before the internet / It was the one place to be,” and the rather unfortunate lyric, “But I come back stronger than a ’90s trend.”

At times on evermore, Swift seems to be trying to combine her woodsy, timeless folklore aesthetics with spiky witticisms about fashion and pop culture, and it doesn’t entirely cohere.

At other points, Swift’s love for bubblegum pop comes out, mostly to her detriment. “long story short” is upbeat and saccharine in a way no tracks on folklore were; it could be a b-side from Red, and it is somewhat hard to listen to if you’ve come to evermore for relaxing and thoughtful folk music. Altogether, the album sometimes blurs together into a goldish haze, and individual songs are forgettable and imperfect.

taylor swift – willow (official music video)

The Whole

Still, in a larger sense, it’s nice to see Swift working towards what seems to be a sort of wholeness. Swift’s public persona has always been a web of contradictions, and her ability to shapeshift has both been damaging and star-making. Her sexuality and her purity, her victimhood and her power, have both alternatively critiqued and worshiped.

On evermore, with its weird dichotomy of immediacy and detachment, Swift seems closer than ever to reaching this point. In Jungian psychology, the ultimate goal of therapy is individuation — a sense of wholeness between the conscious and unconscious mind, a balance that neither rejects nor centers any of the many facets that comprise a person.

But of course, one of the most fascinating things about folklore and evermore is that, by nature, they prevent listeners from using these songs to analyze Swift. They’re all fictional narratives, written from others’ perspectives, which makes it difficult to connect this album to Swift’s wider career or individual self.

Instead, folklore and evermore force the listener to contend with what Jung called the “collective consciousness”: the shared experience that we’re all undergoing. At times, Swift veers towards the metaphysical, and you can see what she means by “deeper into the Folklorian woods.” “How’s one to know / I meet you where the spirit meets the bones,” she sings on the spine-tingling “ivy,” which features Bon Iver. At other times, she gets poetic: “Now you hang from my lips / Like the Gardens of Babylon,” she sings.

Taylor Swift – ivy (Official Lyric Video)

Literature and history materialize more than once, intertwined within Swift’s typically general and relatable lyrics. “I hope she’ll be a beautiful fool / Who takes my spot next to you,” sings Swift on the stunning “happiness. “No, I didn’t mean that / Sorry, I can’t see facts through all of my fury.” The line “beautiful fool” is, in all likelihood, a reference to The Great Gatsby, when Daisy, Gatsby’s love interest, dolefully says she hopes her daughter will be a “beautiful fool,” the best thing a woman can be.

Gatsby, like Coney Island in the winter, is someone whose dreams of glory and ambition were built on faulty foundations. All his great parties and gilded dreams were ultimately doomed to collapse.

The Present

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many great institutions and dreams have also collapsed, and the rusty infrastructure that propped up the great collective illusion of the American Dream have also started to creak and break. We see the devastating inequality and precarity that has haunted so many for so long. We see that perhaps our priorities, our obsession with success and work at the expense of all others and the planet itself, weren’t actually the answer after all.

evermore, of course, doesn’t exactly make these kinds of overt political statements. But in its emphasis on the collapse of great gilded dreams, and in its inextricable connection to our pandemic times, it’s hard not to think of them.

Taylor Swift – happiness (Official Lyric Video)

And as acid rain pours down and the climate and economic crises worsen, it’s hard to know where we’ll go next. “Now my eyes leak acid rain on the pillow where you used to lay your head,” Swift sings on “happiness.” “All you want from me now is the green light of forgiveness.”

But then Swift sings, “You haven’t met the new me yet.” We don’t know where we’ll be going next;, but at least, Swift promises, we can always reinvent ourselves. And even after the old world falls away, we’ll still have the memories — flickers of the happiness that once was, in spite of it all.

Posted in: Pop