In this lockdown year, Taylor Swift decided once and for all to shed her upbeat, country-pop-electronic-dance queen musical approach in favor of a sound more befitting trying times. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, she wanted it darker. To help her along with her stylistic transition, Swift engaged the services of producer, songwriter, and musician Aaron Dessner, best known for his work with the dark, moody rock outfit the National. Dessner wound up producing and co-writing about half of “Folklore” — which came out last July — and almost all of “Evermore,” which got a surprise release last week.
Swift’s longtime producer, Jack Antonoff — a New Jersey native who attended the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County — wasn’t pushed aside by Dessner; he still contributed in various measures to both albums. In addition to Dessner, Swift invited her friends in the Grammy Award-nominated sister folk-rock trio, Haim, to provide harmonies on “Evermore,” and she wrote them in as characters in one of the album’s songs (“No Body, No Crime”). As if this weren’t sufficient, Swift released “Evermore” — the existence of which came as a complete surprise to fans and others — on the first night of Hanukkah.
Aaron Dessner and his twin brother, Bryce, form the Jewish core of the National, indie-rock icons who all play on “Evermore.” Brother Bryce is also an avant-garde composer who was commissioned to write “Aheym,” which means “homeward” in Yiddish, by Kronos Quartet. He once said, “My brother and I have always been fascinated by liturgical religious melodies in Judaism.” The three Haim sisters — Este Arielle, Danielle Sari, and Alana Mychal — are the daughters of musical parents: Israeli-born Mordechai “Moti” Haim, who was a drummer when he wasn’t playing professional soccer in Israel; and their mother, Donna, who grew up in Philadelphia and who once won a contest on “The Gong Show” for singing a Bonnie Raitt song.
For the most part, you can close your eyes and listen to the songs on “Folklore” and “Evermore” and imagine them being sung by Matt Berninger, lead vocalist of the National. Indeed, you can literally hear this when Berninger duets with Swift on the song “Coney Island.” While Swift’s lyrics are still primarily romance-and-heartbreak-obsessed meditations presumably intended for 15-year-olds, they now come contextualized in moodier sonic landscapes courtesy of Dessner and company. Even the mopey-sounding Marcus Mumford of English folk-rock group Mumford & Sons contributes a vocal appearance, as does the delicately emotional Justin Vernon and his band, Bon Iver, further enhancing the misery quotient of “Evermore.”
While “Folklore” and “Evermore” offer more sophisticated music and lyrics compared with her earlier efforts, and while her writing has gained a new level of maturity, Swift is still no Bob Dylan. Swift is 31 years old; Dylan was only 33 when he wrote his “Blood on the Tracks” album, widely considered to be the greatest “breakup album” of all time. Swift still has a ways to go to be considered in that league, but after releasing nine studio albums, it looks doubtful she will ever win a Nobel Prize for Literature.
Swift’s new approach won favor with Grammy Award voters last month, however, when “Folklore” was nominated for Best Album (a producer’s award that would go to Dessner and Antonoff). “Cardigan,” cowritten by Dessner and Swift, was nominated for Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance, and Antonoff will vie for the Producer of the Year award. (“Evermore” will be eligible for the 2021 Grammy Awards.)
One question remains: Given the extensive creative contributions by members of the tribe to her latest efforts, should Taylor Swift’s new music be considered Jewish music?
You tell me….
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. He frequently mines popular culture for its hidden Jewish stories.