These are the musicological reasons Taylor Swift’s new album sounds dull

Alyssa Barna

THE WASHINGTON POST – The surprise arrival of Evermore, Taylor Swift’s second studio album of 2020, was another pandemic gift to her legions of devoted fans.

Typically known for her catchy and impassioned tracks, Swift’s releases this year are noticeably understated, and even positive reviews have noted a sense of “emotional distance”. Folklore is nominated for six Grammys, including Album of the Year, so there’s no doubt her recent style has adherents.

But some have bristled that Swift’s toned-down aesthetic on July’s Folklore carried over to Evermore, with one critic writing that “it’s the very definition of diminishing returns”.

Even a largely affirmative take from Mel Magazine’s Miles Klee acknowledges, “I might put on either of the records she released this year, Folklore and Evermore, in the same spirit that I’d play Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports.” Others have noted that the new album seems to drag like “a hug that lasts too long”, and the rock band Smash Mouth faced backlash in July for a now-deleted tweet that simply said, “borelore”.

If you can’t help but agree that this new sound is a bit, well, boring, there are real compositional reasons for that nagging thought. Swift’s recent music is studded with literally audible choices that make her songs more subdued than much of her earlier work, to the point where a reasonable, unbiased listener with no ax to grind might reasonably describe them as dull, even boring.

The albums noticeably avoid the types of musical contrasts songwriters usually employ to hold listeners’ interest and introduce new musical ideas. For example, the tempos, or pace, of the songs are stagnant throughout Evermore, with only four tracks reaching a tempo faster than 120 beats per minute. This makes the other tracks feel like they’re dragging, and there are even pairs of songs with identical tempos back-to-back.

Taylor Swift struts the Wango Tango stage at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California on June 1, 2019. PHOTO: AP

As with Folklore, Evermore also has limited changes in dynamics, meaning shifts in how loud and soft certain notes, phrases or sections of a song are. Songwriters typically play with dynamics to evoke emotion and the feeling of evolution in music, as in the famous part in Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball, where a moment of silence leads to the throbbing chorus, “I came in like a wrecking ball”.

By contrast, Evermore establishes a quiet atmosphere, including in Swift’s vocals, that carries through the album with little change. Consistent soft dynamics certainly convey the image of a cerebral, flannel-clad musician composing in a forest cabin, but some listeners could find that this doesn’t hold their interest after a few tracks. There is, after all, a reason that we use the term “cabin fever” to describe the experience of going stir crazy.

Also largely static on the album are the timbres Swift uses in both her vocals and in instrumentation. Timbre relates to the quality and tone colour of sounds.

The reason you can tell a guitar strum and a piano riff apart, for example, or recognise your two sisters’ distinct voices is that they have different timbres. And timbre can also apply to musical textures that are made up of many instruments and voices.

On Evermore, Swift mainly utilises two primary areas of her voice: when she sings high (in the upper register) the timbre can be described as breathy and bright. When she sings lower, the sound is full and dark. She does not, however, switch between these two within any of the individual songs on the album, only on different tracks, making the vocals of each fairly static. Shifts in instrumental timbres within a single song are also infrequent. For example, in Dorothea, Swift is accompanied by a slightly out-of-tune piano and drum set, with occasional electric guitar lines, using the same texture for the entire song.

Timbre shifts typically play an important role in music, giving listeners intuitive clues about the different sections of a song – musical signposts that indicate where you are and where you might be going. If listeners can’t orient themselves because there are no changes in timbre, they may start to tune out.

“Something sounds like a chorus even before it gets repeated the first time because it will typically be more dense, (with) more instruments, and sound brighter,” said Megan Lavengood, a music theorist at George Mason University who studies timbre and popular music. “Something sounds like a bridge because the timbres are strikingly different from the ones we’ve heard so far – maybe a new instrument is used or the drums drop out.”

In recent pop music, changes in timbre and dynamics right before the chorus are common – this is a critical moment to cue listeners that something important is coming up. A great example of this can be heard in the changes that take place before the chorus in Dua Lipa’s Don’t Start Now, from the album Future Nostalgia, which is nominated in many of the same Grammy categories as Folklore. A dreamlike pre-chorus, with synthesisers and hand claps grows in volume and intensity toward the arrival of the chorus.

The tension is broken at the arrival of the chorus with allusions to the titular lyric, Don’t Start Now, accompanied by a funky bass line evocative of disco.

Those who’ve found Swift’s recent turn dull may find some comfort in the musical landscape of Evermore, which features more contrast than that of Folklore, thanks to the newer album’s more diverse array of instruments. The track Willow, for example, includes a plucked string ensemble, and both Long Story Short and Closure employ a drum machine.

Swift does also ramp up the intensity toward the end of the album in the last two tracks. Closure is not only a quicker tempo than many of the earlier songs, but has an unusual, asymmetric metre called 5/4 – a break with most music, which is organised into groups of beats divisible by two, like 4/4 or 6/8.

The album’s eponymous final track also introduces contrasts that are otherwise largely absent thanks to its guest artiste, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, who also worked with Swift on Exile, a guest track for Folklore. Interestingly, though the song Evermore provides some contrast in the context of the album – differing from it by a tempo increase in the middle of the song and extra processing added to Vernon’s voice – it follows the almost the exact same compositional layout as Exile. Both tracks begin with hushed vocals and soft piano accompaniment, include a triumphant contrasting section halfway through that’s loaded with new chord changes and loud vocal manipulations, and then fade out to an inconclusive end.

Thus, though it breaks with the style of the Evermore as a whole, the song may leave listeners with a feeling that what they’re hearing is just a little too familiar, even if that familiarity isn’t entirely unpleasant.

Listen to Evermore and Folklore with an ear to contrast and you’ll quickly notice the monotonous sonic palette Swift is working with and the lack of musical cues. That isn’t necessarily a problem, of course. Instead, it may be oddly apt for our locked down, pandemic-era lives. Indeed, Swift’s low-key vision is a big mood, an attempt, perhaps, to extract a little romance from our own monotonous moment. It’s not inherently good or bad for an artist to make a stark aesthetic choice, but it is inevitably polarising – even, or especially, among die-hard fans.