In 2020, while the rest of us were perfecting banana bread recipes, Taylor Swift released two surprise records amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Combined, folklore and evermore reinforce Swift’s status as contemporary pop music’s most exciting artist.
With each new project, Swift reinvents her image and sound, much like Madonna, and at a time when her contemporaries seem to be chasing the top of the charts, she is content to follow her artistic muse wherever it takes her.
You have to admire the audacity of someone who was able to escape the country music industry’s clutch to become bubblegum pop personified. And just when that act was starting to get a bit stale (sorry, Lover fans!), out of nowhere comes the one-two punch of folklore and evermore, the two best alternative records in years by someone we never considered alternative.
Swift, one of the most recognizable celebrities, is as mainstream as it gets, yet folkore and evermore sound like nothing you’d hear on The Hot 100. This time around, Swift passed over Max Martin for Aaron Dessner of The National and Bon Iver, two indie artists her pre-teen fan base have probably never heard of. That she pulls it off is a testament to her talent.
Swift has long been celebrated for her songwriting abilities. She makes the personal universal and finds clever ways to incorporate painfully intimate details of her own experience into her lyrics to the point where her fans believe she’s singing about them as well.
The song “Fifteen” off of Fearless famously includes the line, “And Abigail gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind,” and though Swift clearly references her best friend’s loss of virginity and the heartbreak the two shared after a rejection, her fans found comfort in the words and made the song their high school anthem. They, too, were Abigail.
Still, for all the praise Swift receives as a songwriter, too much of it focuses on the so-called “relatable” stories about the moments of first love and heartbreak that shaped her. And this is all fine, but there’s something missing from the discourse, and with folklore and evermore, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to deny.
Swift isn’t just a talented songwriter. She isn’t just a relatable storyteller. She is a pop music poet, and it’s about time we recognize it, for this kind of artistry, particularly when it penetrates the mainstream, is rare.
The list of pop music poets isn’t long. Bob Dylan. Joni Mitchell. Bruce Springsteen. Patti Smith. Leonard Cohen. Lucinda Williams. Nas. And now Swift, who somehow still seems underappreciated, even though she’s the biggest superstar in the world.
Pick any song off of folklore and evermore and you’ll see my point. The one that keeps me up at night is “ivy,” a sinister fable about infidelity.
A close reading of “ivy” shows how Swift carefully constructs the song with co-writers Dessner and Jack Antonoff (in the great collaborative tradition of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge). Told from the perspective of a long-dormant wife whose passion is reinvigorated by a new lover (Another man? Another woman? It remains a mystery), this romantic affair ends tragically and the forbidden nature of the relationship dooms the wife to death.
The song starts with a question:
“How’s one to know
I’d meet you where the spirit meets the bones
In a faith forgotten land?”
In just three lines (and a clever homage to Williams’ “Compassion”), Swift establishes a consistent theme that runs throughout the lyric, namely, the carnal and the spiritual coming together, which in the context of a romantic relationship is the ultimate goal.
The next lines follow:
“In from the snow
Your touch brought forth an incandescent glow
Tarnished but so grand”
Collectively, these lines convey a reawakening for the wife, while also acknowledging the moral dilemma of the affair. We sense that the wife lost her lust for life a while ago and forgot what it was like to have faith in anything (she’s living in a “faith forgotten land” after all), but her new lover makes her feel passionate again. She now has “an incandescent glow” from the new lover’s touch, which again finds Swift connecting the carnal and the spiritual.
However, that the touch is “tarnished” foreshadows danger and reminds us that the affair will cause damage. The relationship between the wife and her new lover will have consequences because it is a betrayal.
Still, “tarnished but so grand” suggests a compromise. Yes, the affair is wrong and will ruin lives, but for the wife it’s worth it.
“And the old widow goes to the stone every day
But I don’t, I just sit here and wait
Grieving for the living”
Here, Swift contrasts the image of an “old widow” who “goes to the stone every day” with the wife. Although the wife is not a widow who visits her dead husband’s grave, she might as well be. She similarly feels stagnant. She sits around and waits for her new lover’s touch, all the while feeling sorry for herself and her miserable marriage.
My pain fits in the palm of your freezing hand
Taking mine, but it’s been promised to another”
The first part of the chorus is particularly powerful. We learn the pain the wife feels and how her new lover has complete control over her.
However, she’s married to someone else, which is why her new lover’s hand feels “freezing.” There’s a coldness to even the most passionate affairs because you can’t evade the consequences of betrayal.
“Oh, I can’t
Stop you putting roots in my dreamland
My house of stone, your ivy grows
And now I’m covered in you”
At the same time, although the wife knows the affair is wrong, she can’t stop herself. The second part of the chorus uses symbolism to show the wife’s transformation when she’s with her new lover. “House of stone” calls back to the “old widow who goes to the stone every day” a few lines earlier. The wife is stuck with her husband, and the affair makes her feel alive.
If the wife is represented by a lifeless “house of stone,” the new lover is “ivy” that “grows” all over her. She is overtaken by her new lover’s aliveness to the point where the two become one.
In common parlance, the phrase “put down roots” refers to people establishing a home and settling down in a community for the long-term. The line “I can’t stop you putting roots in my dreamland” reveals the wife’s inability to control her desire for a future with her new lover, but there’s incredible sadness because this life can only be actualized in her dreams.
I’m in awe of Swift’s beautiful poetic imagery in the chorus. So clearly not your average pop song, this alone makes a strong case for “ivy” as pure poetry.
“I wish to know
The fatal flaw that makes you long to be
In the second verse, Swift further foreshadows the ending. Her new lover brings her so much passion but has a “fatal flaw.” What could it be?
Perhaps it’s the ability to cause the wife to begin the dangerous affair in the first place.
The word “fatal” hints at a potential death, but “magnificently cursed” implies that the death might be worth it — not unlike the “tarnished but so grand” line from the first verse.
“He’s in the room
Your opal eyes are all I wish to see
He wants what’s only yours”
The most direct allusion to the affair, here the wife further describes her state. Whenever she’s in a room with her husband, she wishes she were with her new lover. The new lover is who she secretly belongs to.
The description of the eyes as “opal” is significant. While historically, the opal was used during the Middle Ages to resemble good luck, the perception has since changed and now in many cultures is believed to bring evil.
So why does Swift choose “opal” to represent the eyes? As much as the wife wants to be with her new lover, this is another reminder that the affair won’t end well. Swift cleverly uses folkloric (pun intended!) symbolism to foreshadow the fallout.
After the chorus repeats, Swift takes us to the bridge of the song.
“Clover blooms in the fields
Spring breaks loose, the time is near
What would he do if he found us out?”
Similar to the chorus, Swift incorporates symbolism to portray the blossoming relationship with the new lover. “Clover blooms” and “spring breaks loose” are all signs of a new beginning.
However, there’s that lingering dread again: “What would he do if he found us out?”
The pieces are coming together, and those who’ve been paying attention can start to connect the dots. Swift is being playful. Of course the husband is going to find them out! She already set the scene, and it’s just a matter of time (“the time is near”) until something bad happens.
“Crescent moon, coast is clear
Spring breaks loose, but so does fear
He’s gonna burn this house to the ground”
Now the affair comes crashing down. Notice the repetition of “spring breaks loose” and the contrast between “time is near” and “but so does fear.” There’s a moment during any affair when fear kicks in, and it typically appears right as the two lovers realize they’re about to get caught.
“He’s gonna burn this house to the ground” is the destruction Swift has been foreshadowing all along, and it’s appropriate to assume that the wife will be set ablaze by her husband, a harsh punishment for having a new lover.
This poetic image calls back to the chorus, and the “house of stone” Swift uses to symbolize the wife’s dormant state. Only now, the entire foundation is destroyed. What once was brought back to live, covered with ivy, is now turning to dust.
“How’s one to know?
I’d live and die for moments that we stole
On begged and borrowed time”
The final verse confirms the wife’s death. She and her new lover “stole” moments from her husband, and as payback, she has to “live and die” for it.
“So tell me to run
Or dare to sit and watch what we’ll become
And drink my husband’s wine”
This is the most thrilling passage. Here the wife presents a final offer to her new lover: With the new lover’s command, she will run away and save herself from ruin, or they can watch it all fall apart together.
I love that the wife boldly dares her new lover to stick around and marvel at the mess they’ve made. She even proposes drinking her husband’s wine, a deliciously perverse image that signifies a last laugh of sorts. She’d rather die beside her new lover than save herself and spend one more second with her husband.
In the end, we’re left with a reckoning:
So yeah, it’s a fire
It’s a goddamn blaze in the dark
And you started it
So yeah, it’s a war
It’s the goddamn fight of my life
And you started it
She never wanted it to end, but it had to. She blames her new lover for the tempting passion, but by this point, we know she’d do it all over again if she could.
“ivy” brings to mind canonical classics like “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell, which is arguably the most well-regarded poem to convey a “life is short, so let’s play while we can” message.
“Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am’rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our Time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapt pow’r.”
And much like the metaphysical poems of the past, “ivy ”is best appreciated as a spoken (or, in this case, sung) work. While the lyric can be analyzed on the page, it doesn’t fully come alive until Swift’s vocal inflections take over, enabling us to detect her cheeky tone.
Whether you agree with my reading of “ivy” or not hardly matters. Like the best poems, the evocative word choices are at once purposefully cryptic and painstakingly precise.
Let there be no doubt: Swift’s poetry achieves an artistic transcendence rarely found in pop music.