I believe the Bible is a love story: the oldest, most beautiful love story the world has heard. It's fitting, then, that I often find echoes of that ancient love story in contemporary music, art, novels, and poetry—including Taylor’s Swift’s latest surprise release, evermore.
The opening track of the novelesque new album, “willow,” gives us a cue that the body of work we are about to listen to is a collection of love stories that intersect and mirror each other. Twinkling pianos and light guitars back Swift’s distinct falsetto as she introduces us to her fictional world: “I’m begging for you to take my hand / wreck my plans / that’s my man / Life was a willow and it bent right to your wind…” It’s like turning the page of an old book and watching the dust turn to glitter. What the listener doesn’t realize up front is that the “mythical thing” she invites us into is like an old diamond that hasn’t been cleaned in centuries. evermore is about a love that is scratched and chipped; looking back on it is both nostalgic and painful. It shows us facets of love in ways that cut deep. Here we will find lost and broken love, love that left you stranded without a home and identity.
In evermore, I hear the themes of another love story—the biblical one. God’s covenant love story with Israel is also a multi-faceted diamond. Although they don’t fall into the genre of fairytale (or folklore), the Psalms prove to us that this love can be expressed in the beauty and complexity of poetry and songwriting, which are the same tools Swift implements to tell her stories. evermore revolves around several stories of infidelity and the pain that couples experience during separation; the Bible describes the story of infidelity committed by Israel and the loss they experience when they are taken into exile in Babylon, separated from God and homeland.
On evermore, Swift explores the pain of exile and loss of identity most vividly in “coney island.” She sets up a scene that evokes images of being lost at a crowded fair or alone in a crowded room—even if the one you love is right next to you. “If I can’t relate to you,” she sings, “then who am I related to?” An ascending guitar riff behind her vocals repeats without changing harmonies or rhythms, matching the cyclical lyrics: “Sorry for not making you my centerfold / over and over / Lost again with no surprises / Disappointments close your eyes / and it gets colder and colder.”
In the Psalms, I sense the Israelite’s loss of identity most distinctly in songs that express how separation from God feels being cut off from things that feel familiar. Even though much of the beauty of the original Hebrew is lost in translation, you can hear that sense of loss in Psalm 27, which are similar to the words of one of Swift’s lonely lovers:
Do not hide your face from me,
do not turn your servant away in anger;
you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me,
God my Savior.
In evermore, I hear the themes of another love story—the biblical one.
Similarly, in her song “ivy” Swift explores the idea of finding love in a hostile world. She sings to her lover: “How's one to know? / I'd meet you where the spirit meets the bones / In a faith forgotten land.” Here in the dreamland she creates with her partner, her sorrow turns to joy—indicated by a banjo-heavy change of minor chords to major chords, which “cover” her like ivy growing over a quiet cottage in the woods. It reminds me of how God is described as a “shield” in Psalm 28:
The Lord is my strength and my shield;
my heart trusts in him, and he helps me.
My heart leaps for joy,
and with my song I praise him.
Still, for all of Swift’s hopeful pondering, it only feels like an ember of joy trying to beat back the darkness, as the last track, “evermore,” fades. Although Swift journeys from a place of pain to a place of hope by the end of the song, I can’t help but feel that her hope is unsustainable. Backed by a single piano line, Swift delivers these meditative verses: “I couldn't be sure / I had a feeling so peculiar / that this pain would be for / Evermore.” This is contrasted by the rousing, pulsing chorus and bridge featuring Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon: “Oh, can we just get a pause? / To be certain, we'll be tall again / Whether weather be the frost / or the violence of the dog days.” When Taylor returns to her meditative state, we can tell she has edged closer to the light—“And I couldn't be sure / I had a feeling so peculiar / This pain wouldn't be for / Evermore”—yet her hope still resembles a wish or a dream.
The journey the Psalms takes us on is also a journey from sorrow to joy. The biblical idea of hope, however, is a promised reality that is both here and still coming. It is something that we have experienced and believe in, rather than wish for or dream about. Swift’s tales of infidelity end in a nostalgic reflection of what went wrong, what she learned, and how she is finding healing in herself or a new relationship. But scripture tells us of a holistic redemption. In the story of unfaithful Israel, we learn about a steadfast God who never breaks his covenants. Moreover, the people of Israel already know that God will remain faithful in the face of their infidelity because they know how God has acted in the past.
In Psalm 30, the Israelites can visualize and believe in that forgiveness, even while they are still in bondage to the Babylonians. They are anticipating a return to their homeland and to the presence of the Lord:
Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people;
praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment,
but his favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning.
This is our hope too. This is the ultimate love story: though we turn away and break our promises, though we sin against God and one another in unimaginable ways, we are never too far from forgiveness. There is no darkness too dark for God’s light to reach us. This is the scandalous promise of the new covenant: that even in our sin, Christ died for us and will be with us always, even to the end of the age. We are all exiles who have lost their true identity, who have been stranded with no direction. But in Christ we are part of the family of God, who has been faithful, and will remain faithful, forevermore.