Meet me behind the mall
At the start of the third lockdown, I wonder: what if lockdowns suit me? And I worry: shouldn’t it be easier now to understand what they do to my thoughts? Every day, I go out to walk under the bare trees and listen to one of the two albums Taylor Swift made last year: folklore, which came out in July, and evermore, which came out in December. (I’m not the only one: evermore is currently the number one album in the US, and number two in the UK.) The songs are a product of lockdown – Swift wrote them in the blank space that opened up when a tour had to be cancelled – but they are also of lockdown in the way they use a trace of the life before, a line like ‘meet me behind the mall’, to conjure a world.
One of the stories the albums tell is of James and Betty. They were together at high school, but for a summer James hooked up with someone else. James realises he’s still in love with Betty and fears what will happen when he turns up at her party to apologise and get her back; the girl he hooked up with knows James was never hers but meets him behind the mall anyway; Betty, years later, remembers that James was the person who picked her up when she felt discarded, worthless, like an old cardigan. I tell this like the teenage epic it is, because if you swap Taylor for James you have the way Swift’s albums were understood before these two. It is Swift’s folklore, the baggage she comes with to a casual listener for whom she was just another teenage girl singing about her own drama.
She fought her way to Nashville at the age of 13 and wrote all the way through her teens and twenties, acquiring fans and awards and the sort of fame that means a new fringe will make headlines, let alone a new boyfriend. She wrote about her life: her songs were ‘about’ her winter romance with Harry Styles, or her feud with Kanye West, or her break-up with Calvin Harris, or Tom Hiddleston, or Jake Gyllenhaal. Her fans – Swifties – combed through lyrics and images to match the tabloid narratives with her sung responses, and then sang out loud too. A dashcam video of a middle-aged cop in Delaware, pouting and nodding and grooving and miming to 2014’s ‘Shake It Off’, has had 45 million views on YouTube. Like the best autofictionist going, Swift gave us these sassy little moments to inhabit ourselves. Like the worst autofictionist going, she couldn’t stop.
Half a sentence I hadn’t thought about in years came back to me while listening to folklore and evermore. In a notebook passed round on the last days of school, a friend wrote that she’d miss our long talks: ‘We may be girly but at least we care.’ (I walk, I listen, I mouth the lyrics: I may be a Swiftie, but at least I care.) These songs released me into memory in the way lockdown has: the present is hectic, sad and thin, but the past is rich and still and manipulable. Swift shows the story of Betty and James from the points of view of all its players, sometimes treating the past like the vivid present and sometimes allowing it to be far away, and over. On ‘Happiness’, from evermore, Swift sings about sometimes glimpsing a relationship from ‘above the trees’, seeing it for what it is, although now she’s in bed, leaking ‘acid rain on the pillow where you used to lay your head’. It takes a while of listening to these albums to work your way out of the assumption that Swift is singing about herself, and realise that she’s singing about someone else. Unfortunately, that someone is you: you’re the one not quite not singing them out loud on your walks around the park, after all.
Another question posed by lockdown goes something like this: once everything has been stripped back, what and who do you actually need? Lacking the bare minimum you might still ask yourself this question. What matters most? You’re making do with less: fewer people, one outing a day, only the food you know how to cook. These two albums are like that too. Before folklore and evermore, Swift’s music was overproduced in the way pop music often is now, full of glitches and beats and layers and self-harmonies. In 2015, the (now cancelled) rock singer Ryan Adams made a cover version of 1989, Swift’s platinum-selling 2014 homage to 1990s pop, and when there’s only a guitar and a drum kit and a voice with fewer octaves, you notice the songwriting, the storytelling, the melodies.
On folklore and evermore she has new collaborators: Aaron Dessner of the National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, people who might have been too cool, or too busy, or too far away from New York City to work with her if the US weren’t sheltering in place. (She also wrote with the boyfriend she was quarantining with, giving him the pseudonym ‘William Bowery’, and her habitual producer, Jack Antonoff.) Dessner would send over an instrumental track, and Swift would send back a melody and words, and Vernon might then add a coda and progression. But the music stayed spare: plucked guitar, piano, muffled drums. And for all that her collaborators were men, there are sonic nods to women songwriters too: Joanna Newsom, Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, Fiona Apple. Swift’s voice sounds different: less forced, more graceful, smoother, sung through instead of shouted or spoken. We would have time to listen to her, she guessed.
The first song I loved on these albums, the one I played over and over, and still use to jolt my mood, is ‘Invisible String’, written by Dessner and Swift. It’s a first-person song, describing the narrative rush that happens after you fall in love, when you trace back together all the things that happened, but might not have, to bring you together. It’s a four-minute version of the penultimate chapter of Persuasion, when Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth walk through Bath and go back over the eight years they spent apart that actually brought them back together. The details are from Swift’s life – Centennial Park in Nashville, ‘Bad Blood’ from the 1989 album, a trip to the Lake District – but that narrative bolt of certainty, the moment when you can believe in a benevolent universe or in fate or whatever, the idea that even the wrong turns you made were leading you towards the right person, belongs to all of us. ‘Invisible String’ is about a moment when you stand still. ‘Were there clues I didn’t see?’ Swift sings. ‘And isn’t it just so pretty to think: all along there was an invisible string tying you to me?’ There are things you can’t see unless you pause.
I was talking with a friend about Persuasion the other night and she reminded me that it is the eight-year break that fits Anne and Wentworth for each other: who else would wait that long? And she noticed that Austen resists a great temptation in the novel: she barely tells us what happens in the gap. Anne mourned her mother, we know; she moved out of her childhood home; she turned down at least one proposal; she was a fine aunt to her sister’s children. On folklore and evermore Swift lets us see what might be done in that sort of gap, whether it comes about from lockdown or disappointed hopes. The 13th track on both albums imagines the lives of Swift’s grandparents: ‘Epiphany’ on folklore sees her grandfather crawling up the beach during the Battle of Guadalcanal (something he never spoke about); in ‘Marjorie’ on evermore she recalls advice given to her by her grandmother, an opera singer who died when she was 13. ‘If I didn’t know better,’ Swift sings, ‘I’d think you were singing to me now’ – and Dessner samples a ghostly trace of an aria, which turns out to be Marjorie’s coloratura soprano. They are singing together, at last, impossibly. You can sing with your dead. You can sing to the bare trees.