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“Mass Effect” in Retrospect

Why the space opera still resonates almost ten years after its last chapter

Commander Shepard, Mass Effect’s player-protagonist.

Last Sunday, November 7, Mass Effect aficionados and video game developer BioWare marked N7 Day – a fan appreciation day created to celebrate a space opera that’s captured the hearts and minds of countless players around the world. This year also saw the release of Mass Effect Legendary Edition, a souped-up version of the original Mass Effect trilogy for current generation consoles and contemporary gaming rigs. The fact that Mass Effect retains a devoted and dedicated fan base nearly ten years after the final entry in the main series first appeared testifies to its status as one of the best science fiction stories ever told.

It’s fairly easy to understand why Mass Effect commands such enduring loyalty. The series creates a lush and immersive world set in the late 22nd century – the years 2183 to 2186, to be precise – in which humanity aspires to find a place for itself alongside a number of other complex and complicated alien species in the Milky Way’s sprawling galactic civilization. From the very start, Mass Effect floods players with detailed accounts about all of the galaxy’s political, diplomatic, social, and technological facets, from the titular mass effect fields and mass relays that make interstellar travel possible to the intricate diplomatic architecture that governs and structures galactic politics. But a cosmic horror lurks beneath the effervescent surface of galactic society: the Reapers, a race of sentient machines that return every 50,000 years to harvest technologically advanced organic life in order to prevent its inevitable destruction at the hands of artificial intelligence and thereby allow less-advanced organic species to survive.

Most of all, though, it’s the rich and fully realized characters protagonist Commander Shepard encounters and with whom she builds relationships (sometimes romantic and intimate) as she fights to save the galaxy that make Mass Effect such a compelling and memorable experience for so many players. Excellent writing and superb voice acting bring alien characters like Liara T’SoniGarrus Vakarian, and Tali’Zorah vas Normandy to life, and it’s the human connections that Shepard forges with these crewmates that makes Mass Effect special. These characters grow and evolve over the course of the trilogy, moreover, reflecting the influence the Shepard has had on them.  It’s a fact the game’s creators understood and exploited to great effect in the Citadel downloadable content, allowing players to simply relax and spend time with many of the characters we’ve befriended over the course of the trilogy.

Despite the dire straits in which Shepard and her crew find themselves, Mass Effect remains an optimistic story at heart and a deeply human adventure to boot. We may stand on the precipice of galactic annihilation, but we can still find reasons to hope. It also reminds us of the necessity to focus on what really matters – our relationships with others and our basic, shared humanity – even when the fate of the galaxy’s at stake.

Fundamental questions about faith in humanity and hope for the future as well as the pain, loss, and sacrifice necessary to make it through the worst of circumstances course through the trilogy as a whole. But they find their most brutal and unsparing expression in Mass Effect 3, where it’s repeatedly hammered home that Shepard cannot save everyone from the Reapers – no matter how hard she drives herself. Nonetheless, there’s something viscerally and powerfully humanistic involved in fighting against the vast, unfathomable, and inescapable cosmic forces that threaten crush humanity and its alien allies under foot. By the end of the trilogy, Shepard herself has become an avatar of existential hope for the galaxy in the face of its foreordained and seemingly inevitable doom.

Mass Effect deepens these themes by repeatedly alluding to the indispensable notion of holding on to our humanity even in the most desperate of situations. When explaining her decision to destroy the base of the enemy Collectors at the conclusion of Mass Effect 2, for instance, Shepard declares, “I won’t let fear compromise who I am.” It’s Mass Effect 3, though, where the importance of holding fast to our humanity comes through the strongest. Justifying a complete change of heart, for example, the hyperactive salarian scientist Mordin Solus (a fan favorite who first appeared in Mass Effect 2) remorsefully notes that he “focused too much on big picture. Big picture made of little pictures.”

Indeed, Mass Effect consistently argues that maintaining a grip on our humanity matters far more than survival at any and all costs. It’s a point that’s made most directly in a philosophical conversation Shepard has toward the end of Mass Effect 3 with EDI, the artificial intelligence who first appears in Mass Effect 2 and then uploads herself into a Metropolis-style synthetic body near the start of the trilogy’s last entryEDI observes that humans on Reaper-occupied Earth don’t seem to place a particular priority on survival, while the Reapers are “repulsive” because they are “devoted to nothing but self-preservation.” Shepard tells EDI she’s discovered a little humanity, making plain that mere survival isn’t a sufficient goal or motivation for humans or any other intelligent life – even when confronting potential extinction.

It’s a stance also conveyed by the premium Mass Effect places on relationships and personal vulnerabilities. Early on in Mass Effect 3, for instance, Liara asks Shepard how she stays focused “even in the worst situations.” Shepard responds by saying she thinks about her friends and loved ones – the people she’d lose if she failed. Here again, Mass Effect gives the abstract big picture meaning with a focus on the real, flesh-and-blood of the immediate. Humanity and the rest of the galaxy aren’t fighting for survival against overwhelming odds; they’re fighting for each other and their common future.

Shepard and crew, Mass Effect 3.

What’s more, all of Mass Effect’s characters eventually expose their own personal vulnerabilities and insecurities. The player can have Shepard reveal her own self-doubts to close companions like Liara and Garrus, while Shepard herself spends enough time with her crew – alien and human, organic and synthetic – to see them lower their defenses and lay bare their own flaws. It allows players to cultivate a sense intimacy and build a series of emotional connections with these characters in ways that compel us to care about them and their hopes, fears, and foibles.

When played in 2021, though, Mass Effect often feels like a time capsule washed ashore from a more enlightened and humanistic era – one less than a decade in the past. It’s a wide-open window into the in many ways more liberal and vibrant world that existed before the dour pieties and illiberal orthodoxies of the present day seized the commanding heights of American culture and society. Neither Mass Effect’s forthright if often awkward embrace of sexuality nor its optimistic, universalist ethos would likely fly with today’s creative class.

Ironically enough, it was Fox News that attacked Mass Effect over its romance options and sexual content shortly after the game’s 2007 debut – and led to BioWare to shamefully self-censor the 2010 sequel to avoid a similar controversy. Now, however, it’s difficult to imagine the original Mass Effect trilogy existing in the censorious cultural climate that’s evolved over the past ten years. The alluring all-female asarispecies would have to go, as would many of the overt expressions of sexual desire and physical attraction from male and female characters alike across the series – and especially obvious attempts to needle characters in an effort to defuse interpersonal tensions.

The same goes for Mass Effect’s optimistic and universalist ethos. In Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC, for instance, when ex-agents of the human supremacist group Cerberusaccuse Shepard of saving more alien lives than human ones, she replies that she doesn’t care what species they are: “every life counts.” (As presented on the dialogue wheel the choice simply states, “They all matter.”) Prejudice and racism are present throughout the trilogy, expressed by characters of every species against every other. But it’s hard to imagine that two characters cracking jokes about various alien stereotypes (human among them) as a way to ease tension and establish common ground would make it into the game today.

Most of all, though, this ethos finds its expression in the trilogy’s sweeping narrative of an upstart humanity bringing other species together to work together on behalf of the common galactic good despite their manifold disputes and manifest differences. It’s surely no coincidence that a human supremacist group goes on to serve as one of the game’s primary antagonists. Deep in its storytelling bones, Mass Effect holds fast to an old-fashioned sort of liberal humanism that’s wildly out of fashion in our own illiberal and deeply pessimistic times.

Thanks to our collective lurch toward ingrained gloom and entrenched despair over the past decade, however, this fundamental optimism toward humanity and the possibilities of existence has become all the more indispensable. Mass Effect is a story imbued with the aspirational spirit of liberal humanism, a spirit that’s even more precious and indispensable today than when games first appeared. What’s more, something special occurs when deep worldbuilding combines with compelling characters and an emotionally resonant narrative at the same time. It’s a very, very difficult feat to achieve, one that makes Mass Effect all the more remarkable for doing so.

In the end, Mass Effect presents us with a majestic and essentially optimistic vision of humanity and its place in the cosmos, flaws and faults included. It’s one we’d do well to hold onto tightly even – and especially – in the darkest and most perilous of times

Red in Our Ledgers

A Review of “Black Widow”

It’s a shame that Black Widow has become best known for star Scarlett Johansson’s justified lawsuit against Disney over its simultaneous release in theaters and Disney’s streaming service. The dispute overshadowed the film’s rich and sometimes brutal character study, one that builds on the decade Johansson and audiences have spent with Natasha Romanoff. Black Widow works well enough on its own, but it truly excels as the final part of a broader character arc that began more than ten years ago with her first appearance in 2010’s Iron Man 2.

It also sheds light on a widespread but basic misunderstanding about why the Marvel Cinematic Universe works for so many people. The plots of these films tend not to be terribly intricate or complex, and they’re often dismissed as mere “theme park rides” reliant on special effects-laden finales to wow audiences. While there’s a grain of truth to these views, for the most part they miss the mark. Plots of Marvel movies, for instance, do frequently veer off into the absurd or the preposterous. But they’re only meant function as a scaffolding for stories that, at their heart, are driven by character: how our protagonists change and become heroes, how they see their own roles and live with them, and, most crucially, how they struggle to do the right thing despite their own flaws and often-checkered pasts.

Black Widow stands as a paradigmatic example of what make these blockbusters tick. Audiences have spent a decade with Natasha Romanoff, watching her grow and evolve in ways second only to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the slow beats and quiet conversations that make Black Widow work without this shared history. The end result is a character study punctuated with solid action sequences that both divert our attention away from the film’s rather over-the-top plot points and denouement.

Though Florence Pugh rightfully received praise for her performance as Yelena Belova, Natasha’s adoptive younger sister (it’s complicated), Black Widow remains Natasha’s show through and through. Yelena serves as a Natasha’s foil, and it’s through her constant poking and prodding that we see how Natasha has evolved as a character over the past decade. Her caustic jibes at Natasha’s earnest attempt to become a better person draw blood but make Natasha’s own bruised and innate heroism stand out all the more clearly.

“You’re a total poser,” Yelena chides her while mocking Natasha’s tendency to whip her hair back during fights. When Natasha retorts, “All that time I spent posing, I was trying to actually do something good to make up for all the pain and suffering that we caused. Trying to be more than just a trained killer,” Yelena responds that they’re both still trained killers – “except I’m not the one that’s on the cover of a magazine. I’m not the killer that little girls call their hero.” It’s an emotionally unsparing exchange that throws Natasha’s best qualities into relief and reminds the audience why we find the character compelling in the first place.

Indeed, Black Widow has a number of organic connections to the broader narrative in which it’s embedded. Its callbacks and references are necessary rather than gratuitous, serving Natasha’s character arc – both in the film and overall – rather than obsessive fans on the lookout for such nuggets. Natasha’s dialogue with Yelena, for instance, harks back to the intense self-doubt she expressed in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Well aware of her own imperfections and past infractions, when prompted by her fellow Avengers to try and prove she’s worthy to lift Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, Natasha responds, “Oh, no. That’s not a question I need answered.”

It’s an open wound her surrogate father Alexei, a Russian former super-soldier and spy, does his best to pour salt in after Natasha and Yelena liberate him from a gulag. Attempting to convince his daughters of his quasi-parental feelings toward them, he declares his pride in their records as assassins: “You both have killed so many people. Your ledgers must be dripping, just gushing red.” A visibly disgusted Natasha pushes him away, leaving the audience to recall her interrogation of Loki in The Avengers. When she notes that she has “red in her ledger” in that film, Loki doubts she can really “wipe out that much red” from a ledger that’s “dripping, gushing red.” Though she apparently gets the best of the God of Mischief in this verbal exchange, a later talk with Clint Barton (aka the master archer Hawkeye) shows the encounter clearly left her shaken and deeply unsure of herself.

Even Natasha’s brief mention that she’s “not on speaking terms” with Tony Stark early on manages to be more than just a throwaway reference to a previous movie. It brings to the audience’s mind her parting scene with Stark in Captain America: Civil War, where the two heroes go straight for one another’s deepest insecurities. After Natasha lets a fugitive Captain America go amidst a fight, Stark accuses her of possessing “the double agent thing” in her DNA – to which she responds by questioning whether Stark is “incapable of letting go of [his] ego for one goddamned second.” It’s probably the most painful scene in the movie, with both characters directly attacking each another where it truly hurts.

Above all, though, Natasha’s decade-long character arc and Black Widow in particular show us the emotional and physical pain inherent in trying to become a better person and do the right thing. Natasha can’t atone for anything she’s done in the past, no matter how much she may want to – and neither can we. All any of us can do is try to act morally in the present, in the here and now we flawed human beings happen to find ourselves in at any given moment. We’ve got to keep going and take action in line with our values, refusing define ourselves by our uncertainties about ourselves or our past mistakes and ordeals.

As Black Widow reminds us, that’s easy to say and far harder to actually do. We’ve seen Natasha wrestle with it over the past ten years, and she doesn’t come away from it without her fair share of bruises and scars. There’s no reason to expect otherwise, though, and it’s perhaps the most heroic aspect of her character: her persistence in the face of her own doubts about herself and the harsh realities of her chosen path – as Yelena points out, “I doubt the god from space has to take an ibuprofen after a fight.” Natasha remains a deeply flawed and human character whose drive to be a better person resonates with our own struggles to live up to our own potential – like the rest of the Avengers, she just does it on a much bigger canvas and with much higher stakes.

There’s much more that could be said for Natasha’s heroism, starting with her central role in Avengers: Endgame. Her determination pushes the film’s narrative forward, and her ultimate sacrifice testifies to her ingrained heroism. She herself explicitly states that her time with the Avengers not only made her a better person but made her want to keep trying to be a better person regardless of her own personal circumstances. Present across a decade of stories, this very human aspiration to overcome her flaws and errors in order to become more truly herself helps make Natasha an enduringly compelling character.

As Johansson herself put it, audiences see “a character that’s fully evolved. They know her history, her habits, they know the things that are important to her. There’s an intimacy that the audience has with this character now that we can finally embrace [in Black Widow]… Just to be able to have the opportunity to peel back all the layers of this character for a decade is such a rare thing.”1

Natasha’s growth and evolution as a character, in turn, tells us why so many people love the Marvel cinematic universe: not explosions or pseudo-profundities or a rollercoaster kind of rush, but the emotional bonds audiences forge with the flawed characters they see up on the big screen. Movies like Black Widow cultivate these connections with viewers in ways that more narratively complex and technically proficient films often fail to do. Marvel movies manage to resonate with many of us in very basic ways that regular old blockbusters and niche art films either don’t, can’t, or won’t.

There’s nothing ironic, subversive, or deconstructive about Black Widow or its predecessors; they’re straightforward and sincere. It’s far from an exact correspondence, but these movies mine many of the same emotional and thematic veins tapped by the earliest myths and legends of millennia past. Through their flawed heroes and larger-than-life settings, at their best these movies manage to tell us something about ourselves and our condition. In that regard, at least, they’re much more mature and adult in nature than much of what passes for contemporary popular culture.  

Audiences may have had a long wait to see Natasha’s own movie, but it was well worth it. We’ve accompanied the character over more than ten years, experiencing with her the stark reality that it’s not a simple or easy thing to look past one’s own flaws and aspire to be a better person. She reminds us that there’s no shortcut we can take to avoid the pain and hardship inherent in that undertaking. But the journey itself more than makes up for any scars we accumulate along the way.

With Black Widow, Natasha has finally earned her rightful place in the pantheon of cinematic heroes.

Onward to Substack

For anyone who’s interested, I’ll be posting what I write up on Substack moving forward. Having worked with it for another project, I’ve found it an easier platform to use for my purposes. What’s been published here will stay here, but future pieces will be posted on my Substack page:

pmjuul.substack.com

Hope to see you there!

A Rollercoaster Kind of Rush: How “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” captures the frenetic nature of adolescence

Last April, Taylor Swift launched the first salvo in her campaign re-record and recover the rights to her first six albums with the release Fearless (Taylor’s Version). A virtual note-for-note replica of her 2008 breakthrough record, Swift’s new re-recorded version nonetheless manages to sound fresh and energetic rather than an exercise in nostalgia. That’s due in no small part to the strong vocals Swift lends to the album, honed by over a decade of additional experience she’s accumulated since originally recording it as a teenager.

That experience helps elevate Fearless (Taylor’s Version) above its otherwise worthy origins as a way for Swift to assert ownership over her own work. With this re-recording, Swift managed to create something new: an implicit retrospective on the glories, agonies, and follies of adolescence. It’s a new perspective she tacitly acknowledged in the note she posted online announcing the remake, characterizing the album as  “full of magic and curiosity, the bliss and devastation of youth.” 

In part due to their performance by an older and wiser artist, the album and its songs themselves take on new meanings with the passage of time. That’s certainly the case with “Love Story,” a song whose meaning has shifted from that of an adolescent fantasy to an adult reminiscence of a couple’s founding myth – as well as a tale of Swift’s own intimate relationship with her fans. With lyrics like “I didn’t know who I was supposed to be/At fifteen,” moreover, it’s easy to understand why a song like “Fifteen” assumes a novel meaning when sung by an thirty-one year old Swift rather than the teenager who wrote it. As Swift herself would remind us in 2020’s “betty,” no one really knows much of anything at that age – making her re-recording of “Fifteen” exceptionally wry in this new context.

As a whole, the album remains undeniably precocious and gives an unmistakable early notice of Swift’s impressive songwriting skills. The central themes that mark her work also begin to percolate up here, especially on a number of Fearless-era songs from Swift’s vault re-recorded and first released for this project. Songs like “You All Over Me,” “Don’t You,” and “Bye Bye Baby” all reflect the longing for intimacy that’s suffused her music from the start, a yearning that in these cases can be most clearly seen in the aftermath of failed or dying relationships. As she wistfully recalls on “You All Over Me”:

I lived, and I learned 

And found out what it was to turn around 

And see that we 

Were never really meant to be

Most of all, though, the re-recording shifts the way we listen to the album and its songs. Swift’s own maturity puts them in stark relief, allowing the fierce immediacy and existential torment of adolescent romance burn with intensity. We’re able to glimpse facets of the original work that may not have been visible amidst the light and heat of the album’s original 2008 release, and all the more so since it’s a note-for-note re-recording of the original. Time and distance make it easier to put matters that may have seemed life-or-death as a teenager – a bad break-up, for instance, or an unspoken crush – in the wider and fuller perspective that almost always comes with age and wisdom. 

That’s apparent from the very start of the album, where the volatile and nervous energy of adolescent romantic infatuation that courses through the title track itself. There are the urgent, unrequited appeals of the classic “You Belong With Me,” where a desperate Swift pleads with an oblivious platonic friend to see that she’d be perfect for him. On “The Way I Loved You,” Swift contrasts the attractions of an earlier chaotic romance – “so in love that I acted insane” – with her seemingly idyllic current relationship to illustrate the tempestuous nature of many youthful liaisons. 

Throughout the album, we can also see what Swift called “every new crack in the façade of the fairy tale ending she’d been shown in the movies.” These cracks start to appear on songs like “White Horse,” where Swift takes direct aim at her own romantic fantasies and acknowledges that she’s “not a princess” and her broken relationship “ain’t a fairytale.” It’s a sentiment that lingers on “Forever and Always,” a spirited and scathing portrait of scorned love and romantic betrayal where promises of eternal commitment crumble on contact. As she asks on the equally caustic “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” “How’s your heart after breaking mine?”

At the same time, the teenage Swift gives intimations of a more mature perspective on tracks like “Breathe.” She acknowledges that romantic relationships don’t always go as planned or expected simply because we’re human: “people are people and sometimes it doesn’t work out.” That doesn’t make the demise of these relationships any less painful in the moment, but it does make it easier to move forward from them. These more introspective themes receive additional elaboration on songs from Swift’s vault like “You All Over Me” and “We Were Happy.” With these songs, then, Swift sends a strong signal of the direction her work would take in the future.

Above all, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) illuminates the ways in which time and experience can change our points of view – even on the things that, in the moment, seem life-or-death. It’s also a powerful reminder of just how wild and intense our adolescent emotions and juvenile ideas can be, even if we rarely stop to consider it at the time.  That doesn’t necessarily make these emotions and ideas wrong or unfounded – far from it – but it does prompt us to take another look at ourselves when passions overtake us, just breathe, and keep things in perspective.

Records You Should Listen To: “Buffalo Springfield Again” by, well, Buffalo Springfield

Buffalo Springfield - Buffalo Springfield Again - Amazon.com Music

[The third in an incredibly infrequent series.]

Ask anyone with a bare minimum of awareness of the band about Buffalo Springfield and they’ll probably be able to identify it as the performer of the classic 1966 song “For What It’s Worth” – thanks in large part to its repeated (if not incessant) use as a sonic wallpaper for films and documentaries about the Vietnam War and the protest movement that opposed it. Those better versed in the arcana of late 1960s and early 1970s rock might tell you that the band’s roster contained luminaries like Neil Young and Stephen Stills, as well as Jim Messina before his latter-day partnership with Kenny Loggins. Still others would inform you that the band derived its name from a steamroller manufacturing company.

These recollections sell Buffalo Springfield far too short, however viewing the band as a mere prelude to the greater and more worthy artistic ambitions of its members (Stills and especially Young in particular) or as part of the soundtrack to a historical era that recedes further and further into the mists of our collective memory with each passing year. But as the band’s penultimate album – 1967’s Buffalo Springfield Again – makes abundantly clear, Buffalo Springfield deserves much closer consideration in its own right than it now receives.

Again starts off with Neil Young’s hard-charging “Mr. Soul.” Distorted guitars open the number and recur at regular intervals throughout, punctuating the steady baseline and drumbeat that drive the song forward. Young’s lyrics tell the tale of a rock star’s jaundiced perspective on his own fame, where “the thought that I caught in my head” becomes “the event of the season.” Throughout the course of the song, a fickle public presses the protagonist to conform to their own visions of rock stardom – and the narrator wonders if “In a while will the smile on my face/Turn to plaster?”

After a brief detour into country with “A Child’s Claim To Fame,” Again turns to a pair of pensive songs: “Everydays” and “Expecting to Fly,” written and performed by Stills and Young respectively. The former sees Stills layering an introspective lyrical portrait of ennui over a minimalist arrangement marked by the peal of an occasional distorted electric guitar and constant background tinkling of jazz-inflected piano. Young’s “Expecting to Fly” likewise stands out for its haunting and ethereal account of a failed romantic relationship. His evocative lyrics – the narrator’s formerly significant other “stood on the edge of a feather/Expecting to fly” while he himself “tried so hard to stand/As I stumbled and fell to the ground” – float through an otherworldly and deceptively sparse soundscape.

But it’s the exquisite “Bluebird” that almost single-handedly stakes Again’s claim to greatness and easily stands as the band’s single best song. Written by Stills, the final track on the album’s first side launches with a quick and searing Neil Young electric guitar solo. Stills then tears into the vocals with a fierce urgency:

Listen to my bluebird laugh

She can’t tell you why 

Deep within her heart, you see 

She knows only crying, just crying

An extraordinary acoustic guitar solo from Stills ushers in the transition from the frenetic, psychedelic rock of the song’s first two minutes to its quieter, folk-inspired conclusion – a coda complete with delicate banjo picking. 

It’s a kaleidoscopic arrangement that’s beautifully complemented by the vivid and melancholy imagery of Stills’ lyrics. He tells the tale of the titular bluebird, an outwardly happy but inwardly depressed young woman chronically longing for the object of her affection. She’s got “all those blues/Must be a thousand hues” – but at the same time she’s caught the narrator’s eye, who sits “mesmerized/By the depth of her eyes” that reveal “She got soul.” But once the song shifts to its folk-influenced back half, Stills makes clear that its subject is “going to fly away” since her “Sadness is her own” and “Give herself a bath of tears/And go home.”

Side two of the album can’t compare with side one, quality songs like “Hung Upside Down,” “Sad Memory,” and “Good Time Boy” notwithstanding. But Again closes strong, with the low-key anxiety of Stills’ “Rock and Roll Woman” and Young’s “Broken Arrow.” A solid and straightforward rock number with a songwriting contribution (and alleged backing vocals) from David Crosby, “Rock and Roll Woman” features an infectious acoustic guitar riff and backing vocal harmonies punctuated by a bridge marked by a distorted electric guitar trading licks with a pulsating Hammond B3 organ. 

On “Broken Arrow,” Young returns to the theme of alienation that kicked the album off on “Mr. Soul.” That’s apparent from the live sample of the record’s opening track that opens the song, as well as the first verse’s impressionistic sketch of the unrequited enthusiasm of rock fans who camp out in the rain just to catch a glimpse of their musical heroes as they leave a concert venue. Young’s lyrics become more abstract and brooding as the song proceeds, with breaks following verses filled respectively by a baseball organ, snare drum, and clarinet. The heartbeat that closes out the suite provides a fitting end to the album as a whole.

Why give Buffalo Springfield Again a listen? “Bluebird” alone is worth the price of admission, but as a record Again provides eloquent testimony to the songwriting talents of Stephen Stills and Neil Young. At turns pensive and propulsive with a strong streak of melancholy, Again takes the listener on a cruise through the psychedelic ether of the late 1960s rock world – and proves that Buffalo Springfield deserves greater renown as a musical force in its own right.

Strange New World: A Review of ‘Outriders’ on Xbox One

r/outriders - Earlier I made a post about the difference between my PS5 version and Series X (1st of each set is PS5 which looks a lot worse)
Outriders title screen. Source: Reddit

To say that the recently-released sci-fi video game Outriders takes a jaundiced view of human nature would be something of an understatement. Matters start out bleak, and only get darker from there: fleeing a dying Earth aboard a lone colony ship to seek a new home for humanity on the planet Enoch, the player assumes the title of the eponymous Outrider – a member of a vanguard unit sent down to scout out ahead of the full colonization party. Things go wrong almost immediately, with the landing party encountering a deadly fungus and then getting caught in a massive electromagnetic storm. 

Surviving the storm, the Outrider suffers injuries and is placed in emergency cryo-stasis for some 31 years before reawakened. In the intervening decades, humanity has reverted to the Hobbesian state of nature on Enoch: a war of all against all, with all the savagery and brutality it entails. Captured by a thuggish militia and forced to cross a hellish no-man’s land, the Outrider discovers that the storm – known as the Anomaly – has left your character (and others called the “Altered”) with what amount to superpowers. 

After you make your way back to the tattered remnants of civilization and complete some scattered tasks – this is a video game, after all – the Outrider is sent on a mission to trace the source of the strange radio signal you encountered when you first landed on the planet. It’s a classic Heart of Darkness-style journey into the depths of human depravity while searching for a way to deliver what’s left of humanity from its seemingly hopeless predicament. This isn’t the first time a video game has tried to tell this sort of story; 2012’s Spec Ops: The Line used a similar narrative and third-person shooter style to ask serious questions about the use of war as a setting for entertainment.

Despite its desolate setting and otherwise deeply pessimistic take on humanity, Outriders doesn’t aspire to that level of introspection. Instead, the game takes a more sardonic tone via the character of the Outrider. Most often, the player character can best be described as exasperated with mess humanity has made of its new home. This you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me attitude plays well against the dismal world the Outrider finds herself in and the absurd situations she encounters with alarming regularity.

That doesn’t prevent the Outrider from displaying a strong and no-nonsense sense of right and wrong that dances on the edge of brutality. There’s no real element of choice that allows players to shape the narrative of Outriders; instead, we’re treated to cutscenes of the Outrider forcing a murderous extortionist to play his own rigged game of Russian roulette and the summary execution of a doctor engaged in barbaric practices to concoct an antidote for the lethal fungus encountered in the game’s early moments. Still, the Outrider’s unsentimental moral code sets her apart from the despair that’s consumed the remnants of humanity – and yields a solid narrative pay-off in the end.

Though its quests and fights can become somewhat repetitive, Outriders more than makes up for it with gameplay and combat that’s downright fun. Unlike other third-person shooters, Outriders doesn’t let the player hide behind cover and blast away at enemies. Instead, a combination of enemy types – heavy brutes tossing grenades, berserkers that close in on your position, and bosses with heavy firepower – compels you to move around the battlefield with alacrity. Despite the lack of real variation in combat, it’s still enormously satisfying to combine your powers with your firepower to tear through enemies and take down bosses as you progress through the game’s narrative.

You’ll make crucial decisions about your Outrider early on, including appearance and class – selected from a suite of preset characters, my Outrider bore an uncanny resemblance to the default female Shepard from Mass Effect 3. These important early choices play out with fairly standard role-playing and gear collection elements as the game progresses, allowing for a modicum of player customization throughout. While it’s important to keep your Outrider’s gear and skills up to date if you’re playing casually, there’s no real need to pay all that much attention to the game’s role-playing and gear collection components – though those players who enjoy this aspect of this genre will find plenty to explore here. 

Overall, Outriders provides players with an intriguing narrative experience and enjoyable gameplay in a bleak but absorbing setting. The game doesn’t take itself seriously enough to make any particular point out of the dismal view of humanity it presents; the Outrider’s mordant approach to her circumstances takes the edge off the game’s otherwise gloomy atmosphere. For all its pessimism about human nature, though, Outriders does end on a note of optimism – suggesting there may well be hope for us yet.

Ship of Dreams: How the Stuck Suez Canal Container Ship Embodied Life, the Universe, and Everything (Or Not)

Suez Canal Blocked After Giant Container Ship Gets Stuck - The New York  Times
Credit: NYT

Well, it was fun while it lasted.

After six days stuck in the Suez Canal, the enormous container ship Ever Given was freed by a combination of tugboat power and high tides. According to Egyptian officials, it’ll take at least three days – if not longer – to clear the vast backlog of ships waiting to transit the canal. For one shining moment, though, the ship that clogged a vital artery of global commerce came to stand for human futility in the face of our personal and collective problems – an exceptionally ephemeral myth of Sisyphus for the social media age.

Indeed, the fleeting saga of the Ever Given and the Suez Canal ascended into the loftiest of memes: simultaneously silly, preposterous, and ultimately a reflection of the world into which it was born. It didn’t just represent our incompetence and incapacity when faced with daunting physical obstacles, it offered a humorous way for many on social media to reveal and poke fun at their own faults. At a time when all our lives have been put on hold for over a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s only natural to find an outlet in the travails of a mammoth container ship stuck sideways in a not-quite-wide-enough canal.

That starts with the very fact of the Ever Given’s predicament. It’s still unclear how exactly the ship ran aground in the first place; initial reports blamed it on a sandstorm that blew the vessel off course, but human error hasn’t been ruled out. Beyond the apparent ineptitude involved, though, there was the absurd spectacle of lone earthmovers and digging machines trying in vain to dislodge the massive container ship. Combined with a year of pandemic-imposed isolation, the Ever Given’s awkward situation provided ample fodder for memes that dwelled on our personal stagnation and collective inability to surmount formidable challenges.

The immobile container ship spawned two main sets of memes, one focused on the obstruction of the canal itself and the other on seemingly inadequate attempts to remove it. In the first category, the Ever Given itselfstood in for the large and typically self-imposed obstacles that block our paths. Twitter personality @darth, for instance, compared the ship to the social media platform itself, keeping users from a good night’s sleep – presumably because they scrolled their feeds instead of turning in for the night. Or as another Twitter user commented, “We are all, in our own little way, that ship.”

For other meme-makers, however, we were the lone excavators and earthmovers engaged in an apparently pointless effort to release the Ever Given and send it on its way. The size differentials between the hulking container ship and its erstwhile rescue parties only reinforced the shared sense of futility expressed by these memes. One reporter, for example, tweeted an image of a solitary excavator digging away at the ship’s bow with the caption, “me just trying my best.” Others labeled the vessel with a daunting personal problem and the excavator with an inadequate behavioral response, gesturing toward perceived Sisyphean struggles against insurmountable difficulties inherent in life.

Then there were the meta-memes, those attempting to discern the true meaning of the Ever Given memes themselves. As one commentator put it, “The Boat is of course only incidentally a boat, and primarily a manifestation of the online mind’s inability to quit take-making and be about anything other than itself.” Yet complaining about the online Discourse (always capitalized) remains an inextricable part of the Discourse itself; not even the fiercest critics of the take-industrial complex can hope to escape the self-referential event horizon of this intellectual black hole. Perhaps the only winning move here is not to play.

But sometimes all we can do is bow to the absurd. If a wide range of people project their own existential dread onto a big dumb boat stuck in the Suez Canal, that can in fact provide us with some insights into our shared state of mind. After four years of Trump and a year into a worldwide pandemic that’s kept many of us isolated from one another, collectively reveling in this moment of glorious and largely inconsequential absurdity probably represents an effective way to manage the stresses and strains of our own situations. 

Still, it’s best not to encumber this meme with any real meaning whatsoever. In the end, an enormous container ship run aground in a vital shipping artery was just an enormous containership run aground in a vital shipping artery. It’s undoubtedly a transient episode that will soon fade from public consciousness like the morning mist. All the same, it’s also given many of us a delightfully ludicrous if short-lived distraction from our pandemic-dominated lives – a release valve for the anxieties of our present moment.

For that, reality can provide no substitute.

Quick Thoughts on Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” Remake

When Taylor Swift first recorded “Love Story” in 2008, I was too busy getting sucked into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the first Iron Man film to much notice. Thanks to a nasty dispute over the rights to the master recordings of her first six albums, Swift’s now re-recording and releasing them – starting with Fearless, the album on which “Love Story” first appeared way back when. Ownership of master recordings has been a perennial source of friction between artists and record labels since time immemorial, with Swift’s struggle rivaled only by Prince’s decades-long battle for control over his own music. Listening to her new version of “Love Story,” however, it’s clear that Swift’s re-recording campaign does much more than strike a blow for her own rights as an artist – it’s an artistic statement in its own right.

Swift has always been in a dialogue with her past self and work, especially on her past three albums: Lover, folklore, and evermore. On each of these records, she regularly reflects on herself and the sentiments expressed in her previous music. In an unmistakable reference to the title track from 2012’s Red, for instance, Swift acknowledges on Lover’s “Daylight” that she “once believed love would be (burning red).” Older and wiser, she now knows better: love isn’t red or black and white, “it’s golden.” It’s certainly no coincidence that the album artwork for her re-recording of Fearless has a gold tint. 

That’s also apparent on folklore, with the entire album at times sounding a like an extended meditation on the universal themes she’s explored throughout her career. It’s equally evident on evermore, with Swift giving her past self advice on “long story short.” But she saves her sharpest lyrics for the bonus track “right where you left me,” where she portrays that her heartbroken and frozen-in-time protagonist as “still 23/inside her fantasy/how it was supposed to be.” Taken together with evermore’s second bonus track, “it’s time to go,” Swift all but invites us to take note of how her own ideas about love, romance, and fundamental human relationships have grown and matured since she was that age herself.

So it ought to be no surprise that Swift’s remake of “Love Story” possesses the same spirit of self-reflection that permeates her recent work. As she herself noted on social media, she’s now revisiting songs she wrote when she was between sixteen and eighteen years old and still held out hope that the “fairytale ending she’d been shown in the movies might be true. Like other songs that change meaning with time and experience – Pearl Jam’s “Alive” is a particularly poignant example – “Love Story” takes on a new meaning when Swift records it today. 

It’s not simply that the music itself has a crisper and clearer sound, or that Swift’s vocals express a greater depth and range of emotion. “Love Story” changes meaning from a teenager’s romantic fantasy to an adult’s reminiscence about the origins of a lasting relationship, a couple’s founding myth. More than that, though, it’s become a song about the intimacy Swift’s forged with her fans over the course of her career. That’s blatantly obvious in her lyric video for the remake, which contains video and photos of Swift’s meetings with her fans in 2008 when “so many unbreakable bonds” were formed. In the process, she’s imbued the song’s stand-out lyric “we were both young when I first saw you” with a new and far more profound significance.

That’s a sentiment echoed in the bridge of evermore’s title track as well, but Swift makes it crystal clear with her remake of “Love Story.” It’s an artistic achievement that’s all the more impressive because it could not have been fully anticipated ahead of time – one that could only have come about through a potent combination of serendipity and Swift’s own talent. 

“We Come From the Land of the Ice and Snow”: A Review of “Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings” by Neil Price

Amazon.com: Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings eBook: Price,  Neil S. : Kindle Store

With the primal opening track to their third self-titled album, Led Zeppelin injected the long-dead ancient Vikings into the thematic bloodstream of the nascent heavy metal genre. Inspired by the band’s June 1970 trip to and concert in Iceland, the relentless and menacing “Immigrant Song” laid the template for countless heavy metal odes to the Vikings over the years and decades to come. None would surpass Zeppelin’s thundering tale of a Viking raiding party intent on crossing the seas for battle and plunder, but the metal infatuation with the Vikings and Norse mythology continues today with songs like the Sword’s “Freya.”

But if we have a distorted picture of the Vikings today, it’s probably not thanks to Zeppelin and its metal imitators. If we go by the historian Neil Price’s accessible new chronicle of the Vikings and their age, Children of Ash and Elm, the historical Vikings were in fact pretty metal. When Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant ominously intoned about driving ships to new land and whispering tales of gore, he wasn’t actually that far from the historical reality.

That’s ironic, since Price lays his cards directly on the table from the very start: he aims to demystify the Vikings and allow us to see them as real flesh-and-blood people rather than the caricatures that have accumulated over the centuries. These distortions start from the beginning, with Price observing that much of what we know of the Vikings comes largely from the first impressions of their victims and proceeds from there. As much as he laments the modern popular image of the Vikings as “a stereotype of maritime aggression,” Price’s own narrative largely corroborates it – and makes a strong case that it’s even bloodier and far more brutal than we imagine.

But the real value of Children of Ash and Elm lies in its ability to go beyond the popular stereotype and paint a vivid picture of the Vikings, their societies, and worldview that drove them. Despite a great deal of success in achieving his stated goals and his admirable cautions against projecting modern ideologies onto an ancient people who would find them baffling, he undermines these otherwise laudable warnings when he foists the fashionable academic gender ideology of the present on the Vikings of ages past. In the main, though, Price provides an accessible guide to the Vikings that employs the latest archaeological evidence and scientific research to illuminate the worlds they shaped and that shaped them – and in the process gives us some food for thought about our own time.

Take the role of climactic and environmental change in forging what would become the Viking age, for instance. In the middle of the sixth century, two massive volcanic eruptions “of unprecedented magnitude” – one at an unknown location in the year 536, the other at Lake Ilopengo in El Salvador in 539/540 – devastated a Scandinavia already reeling from the collapse of the Roman Empire and its trade networks. An impenetrable “dust veil” blocked out sunlight during the day, while auroras filled the night sky for months on end. Trees and other plant life died off, “quite literally taking out the food supply.” Archaeological and scientific estimates for the death toll in Scandinavia go as high as half of the total population, a rate comparable to the Black Death and the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. 

Price compellingly argues that the fallout from these twin volcanic catastrophes – and possible a third eruption in 547 – left a deep mark on what would become Norse culture. Drawing on surviving Old Norse epic poetry, he notes that the three-year Fimbulwinter (“Mighty Winter”)  which precedes the much more famous apocalypse of Ragnarök bears an uncanny resemblance to global climate cataclysms of the sixth century. These myths reflect, Price contends, the unraveling of Scandinavian social life that occurred as a consequence of this years- and possibly decades-long “volcanic winter.” As he puts it, “It is not hard to imagine how the Scandinavians of the sixth century felt that their whole world was falling into ruin, slipping back into the primal emptiness from which it came.”

It’s this upheaval, Price tell us, that set the stage for the eruption of the Viking phenomenon on an unsuspecting world some two centuries later. There’s more than a passing resemblance here to The Fate of Rome, the historian Kyle Harper’s account of how a changing climate and waves of pandemic disease precipitated the decline and fall of the Roman Empire over the course of several centuries. Price offers up just a chapter’s worth of material based on up-to-date research, but it’s a tantalizing snapshot of the ways in which climate change shaped Viking culture and, as a result, world history.

Viking power rested on the ability to mobilize and organize the resources needed to build, crew, and maintain large, oceangoing naval fleets. As important as these fleets were in military terms – indeed, the Vikings could not have mounted their far-ranging military expeditions without them – they also served as impressive symbols of power in the new Viking age. Sail-powered ships, Price argues, “required special technologies that were highly visible in both their application and the resources needed to create them.” In other words, these ships allowed rising Viking potentates to not only demonstrate their mastery of a vital new technology but also their ability to pull together the skills and materials needed to make it a reality. As Price remarks, “Making a ship and everything it needed was a very serious and expensive undertaking indeed.”

But more than anything else, Price reminds us of the Vikings’ remarkable propensity toward violence and brutality. While he largely succeeds in his effort to expand our understanding of the Vikings beyond the cliche of the merciless seaborne raider, Price does acknowledge that these stereotypes arise from a grim reality. It’s nonetheless a service to strip away centuries of myth and romanticism and present the Vikings as they really were – or at least as close to that as our current knowledge allows.

Like virtually every other society in human history, the Vikings practiced slavery. Though the institution existed in Scandinavia millennia prior to the Vikings, they made it a “central pillar” of their society and economy – so much so that “the active acquisition of human chattel” often constituted as the primary motivation for Viking raids and military expeditions. Enslaved women frequently found themselves subject to sexual abuse and rape, up to and including gang rapes and sex trafficking. Slaves could be murdered as human sacrifices, particularly in certain Viking funeral rituals.

Indeed, Viking human and animal sacrifices were by all accounts and evidence uncommonly gruesome – even by the already macabre standards of the practice. Price notes that it’s “relatively common” for archaeologists to find human remains together with those of “animals that had been given to the gods or other supernatural forces.” In his contemporary chronicle of Viking-era Scandinavia, for instance, the eleventh-century Christian cleric Adam of Bremen tells his readers of sixty-three male animal and nine human corpses strung up and left to rot in the trees of a Norse sacred grove near modern Uppsala in Sweden. For their part, archaeologists have unearthed the bones of likely human and animal sacrifices beneath the altar of a medieval Swedish church built over the stump of a sacred birch tree dedicated to the Norse god Freyr. 

However, perhaps the most grisly examples of Viking brutality come from ritual funerals for high-status elites. Today, a Viking funeral conjures up images of a spectacular and fiery send-off for the deceased on a blazing ship. But the first-hand account of just such a cremation ceremony by the tenth-century Arab traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan disabuses us of any romantic notions we might have of this ghastly custom.

For ten days, ibn Fadlan observed a disturbing orgy of drinking, sex, and death that preceded the lighting of the chieftain’s funeral pyre at a Viking settlement on the Volga River. One enslaved girl, likely in her mid-teens, was compelled to volunteer as a human sacrifice. On the day of the funeral, she is escorted to the ship, drugged, gang-raped by six of the deceased’s relatives as she lies next to his corpse, and then stabbed to death before the ship goes up in flames. Price describes the appalling sights, sounds, and smells that greeted ibn Fadlan: “the screaming of the animals, their entrails fouling the ship’s timbers; the expensive textiles covered in gore; the panic of the girl; the flies in the sticky pools of blood; the mingled scents of recent sex, old death, and violent killing.” It’s enough to make even gory modern depictions of the Viking age like the recent video game Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla appear almost comically cuddly by comparison. 

Still, Price manages to balance out an unflinching portrayal of such horrors with his determination to provide a full account of Viking life and culture. His choice to open his narrative with an account of the Norse creation myth and close it with Ragnarök is inspired, and he’s clearly enamored with the Old Norse epic poetry that survived the centuries. Similarly, he relates an Icelandic scholar’s elegant suggestion that the Vikings based the mythical world-connecting ash tree Yggdrasill on their night-time observations of the Milky Way, “with its cloudy arms spanning the sky like branches.” What’s more, Price debunks a number of more prosaic misconceptions about Norse mythology: Valhalla, for instance, was just one of many halls available to the worthy dead in the Norse afterlife – not their only destination.

But if there’s one thing readers will take away from Children of Ash and Elm, it’s that the geographic extent of Viking influence was much wider than we generally understand today. In our collective imaginations, the Vikings remain firmly tethered to Scandinavia, the British Isles, and Normandy – and perhaps Greenland and North America, too. But the Vikings traveled much more widely, making their way down the river systems of what is modern Russia, mounting raiding expeditions around the Iberian Peninsula and into the Mediterranean, and trading with Arab merchants in the Abbasid capital of Baghdad.

It’s an expansive scope that truly comes into focus as the book draws to a close – one that establishes Children of Ash and Elm as a readable portal to the vast, brutal, and fascinating world of the Vikings. 

“What Died Didn’t Stay Dead”: A Review of Taylor Swift’s “evermore”

As I write, we’re living through one of the bleakest winters many of us will ever experience. Thousands of dead daily from a raging COVID-19 pandemic that’s forced many of us to refrain from our traditional end-of-the-year gatherings with friends and family. A president whose petulance knows no bounds, delaying a critical coronavirus relief bill and refusing acknowledge the reality of his electoral defeat. Not even the prospect of a vaccine and the return of something resembling normal life over the next year can dull the pain and anxiety we’re all feeling right now.

With the stark evermore, Taylor Swift has written a melancholy yet hopeful soundtrack for our gloomy winter. Unlike the unabashed exuberance of Lover or the self-assured introspection of folklore, her second surprise album of 2020 lives in the twilight of dying relationships amidst the desolate, ebbing days of mid-winter. She’s drawn out this theme explicitly in recent interviews, explaining that she wanted evermore to “reflect fall and winter” in the same way she intended folklore represented spring and summer. But evermore is more than just a general rumination on a frigid season and its waning light; it’s the album for our long, dark, and lonely present moment. That’s something Swift recognizes in her introductory essay, saying the record is for those of us “who turn to music to cope with missing loved ones.”

Individually, the songs on evermore concentrate on the moments of heartbreak and sorrow that inevitably accompany life. They tell stories of living through emotional hardship and, most importantly, emerging wiser and stronger for the experience. But where folklore mostly looks back on these episodes with an attitude of equanimity or gratitude, evermore dwells on the immediate ordeal of the decaying and dying relationships many of its songs depict. It’s much more an album about the actof moving forward in the aftermath of failed and failing relationships than the more philosophical and retrospective musings of folklore. As Swift herself put it,“evermore deals a lot in endings of all sorts, shapes, and sizes, all the kinds of ways we can end a relationship, a friendship, something toxic, and the pain that goes along with that, the phases of it.”

In both musical style and songwriting substance, evermore lives up to its billing as a sister album to folklore. Where that album reflects on a lifetime of emotional scars with maturity and acceptance, evermore examines just how those scars came to be in the first place. Swift pokes and prods at the fresh wounds that litter the wintry scenes she paints across the album, letting them bleed for all to see before patching them up and moving forward. Though they may feel excruciating in the moment, Swift remains us that life goes on and these wounds will eventually heal.

Like winter solstice celebrations that mark the shortest days of the year, though, evermore ultimately carries a hopeful message. The album returns to the themes of intimacy and emotional connection Swift has explored throughout her career while elaborating on the more contemplative notions of her two most recent albums. Itreminds us that our emotional agony won’t last forever, and that better days will come again. Though intense heartache courses through the album, there’s still room for glimmers of optimism in the end. Just as winter days eventually stop growing darker and start becoming brighter, we can survive our emotional wounds and rebuild our lives. 

A chill wind blows through evermore, with Swift suffusing her songs with frosty reminders of the season. That’s readily apparent in the appropriately titled “’tis the damn season,” set amidst the protagonist’s return to her home town for the holidays. When she passes by her old flame, she feels “the kind of cold, fogs up windshield glass” that reminds her of “an ache in you, put there by the ache in me.” It’s even more clear on the album’s title track, with references to the darkening months of November and December accompanied by the image of Swift padding about “barefoot in the wildest winter/catching my death.”

Many of the songs on evermore live and breathe in this icy atmosphere. A once intimate relationship only “gets colder and colder/When the sun goes down” on “coney island,” with Swift and Matt Berninger of The National lingering on the slow death of a once-promising romance through mutual neglect. On “ivy,” winter likewise serves as a metaphor for a loveless marriage described as “faith-forgotten land” covered in snow. Arctic emotional frigidity similarly permeates the unsparing “tolerate it,” while on “no body, no crime” revenge is served up ice cold.

What’s more, evermore delivers two of Swift’s most emotionally brutal songs: “champagne problems” and the aforementioned “tolerate it.”In the former, she conveys the heartbreak and confusion involved in a woman turning down a marriage proposal from her college sweetheart. Her protagonist accepts full responsibility for her actions, acknowledging that, while she “couldn’t give a reason” for her refusal, she recognizes the hurt she inflicted when she dropped her would-be fiancé’s “heart of glass.”

That’s nothing compared to the devastating portrait of frozen indifference Swift paints in “tolerate it.” Her narrator waits “by the door like I’m just a kid,” uses her “best colors for your portrait,” and sets “the table with the fancy shit” – only for her significant other to simply tolerate her and her sincere expressions of affection. While she made him “my temple, my mural, my sky,” she’s now “begging for footnotes in the story of your life.” She nonetheless maintains her own self-respect, insisting that her “love should be celebrated.” Though she holds out hope she may have “got it wrong somehow” and desperately wants to know “if it’s all in my head,” Swift’s protagonist warns her romantic partner that she could take “this dagger in me” and pull it out – putting an end to their fading relationship.

For all its wintry despair and tales of emotional frostiness, however, evermore remains an optimistic album at heart. Many of its songs lack any real bitterness or ill will, serving more as a mediations on the pain and heartache inherent in living. That’s clear in the longing that saturates both sides of the unfulfilled relationship depicted in in “’tis the damn season” and “dorothea.” It’s also present on “coney island,” where there’s less recrimination than a mutual attempt to understand just how a failed relationship went wrong, and “champagne problems,” where the narrator reassure her former significant other that he’ll “find the real thing instead/She’ll patch up your tapestry that I shred.”

But Swift’s underlying hopefulness in the face of emotional anguish shines brightest on “happiness,” the final song she recorded for the album. When she’s able to take proper perspective from “above the trees,” Swift’s able to “see this for what it is.” But since she’s smack in the middle of an agonizing breakup, she’s unable to see “all the years I’ve given” to the relationship as anything more than “shit we’re dividing up.” Still, she understands that there was happiness before her now-former significant other and there will be happiness after him. She knows she can’t heal by “making you a villain” and that she bears her own share of responsibility for the demise of their relationship: 

No one teaches you what to do

When a good man hurts you

and you know you hurt him too

Nor does the disintegration of the relationship mean it brought her no joy – on the contrary. All the same, there will be contentment “across our great divide” in the “glorious sunrise” that’s to come. That promised break of dawn ties back into evermore’s wider themes of finding rays of light, no matter how fleeting or faint, in our darkest moments. It also makes plain Swift’s view that keeping perspective and forging ahead constitute the best way to cope with the sort of deep heartbreak she recounts so well here.

That’s evident from “long story short,” a jaunty autobiographical number that wouldn’t have been out of place on folklore. It’s a fairly self-explanatory song, one that reminds us that life can knock us back hard when we least expect it. We can try to pick our battles, Swift tells us, but sometimes the battles will pick us and we’ll fall “from the pedestal/Right down the rabbit hole.” But we can survive the blows of fortune and climb “right back up the cliff” when we’re “pushed off the precipice.”

However, it’s evermore’s title track – by far its best and one of Swift’s finest overall – the that distills the album’s central theme of hope and endurance amidst the suffering and heartbreak that come with life down to its essence. Driven by a mournful piano melody, Swift’s exquisite lyrics convey the emotional desolation of a lonely winter with sublime and piercing insight. “Gray November” sees her ruminating over her recent missteps, “Trying to find the one where I went wrong,” and “Writing letters/Addressed to the fire.” Letting the winter wind hit her as she looks out an open window, Swift relates having

a feeling so peculiar

That this pain would be for

Evermore

Come December, she confesses that she’s “feeling unmoored” and “Can’t remember/What I used to fight for.” Swift still broods over her mistakes, rewinding her memories only to dwell “On the very moment all was lost.” That only reinforces her sense that she can’t possibly escape her hurt and despair, that she’ll always be trapped in the froze emotional wasteland she sketches in such stark terms.

With the bridge, the piano picks up and vocals from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon kick in. As Swift related in an interview, Vernon’s lyrics and their relatively rapid delivery correspond with “the clutter of all your anxieties in your head and they’re all speaking at once.” These apprehensive voices “can’t not think of all the cost/And the things that will be lost” of all the currents swirling around and buffeting Swift. But as the bridge continues, her own voice comes through loud and clear: 

And when I was shipwrecked

I thought of you

In the cracks of light

I dreamed of you 

It was real enough

To get me through

I swear

You were there

It’s hard to hear those lyrics and not imagine them as directed, at least in some small way, toward her fans. After all, in her introductory essay Swift writes that amidst all the uncertainty of the past year she’s “clung to the one thing that keeps me connected to you all. That thing always has and always will be music.”

The piano decelerates but strikes more hopeful notes as the song enters its final verse. Swift catches her breath as she returns to the shelter of a cabin and, while she “couldn’t be sure,” she now has “a feeling so peculiar” that “This pain wouldn’t be for/Evermore.” Where at the end of Lover she steps into the daylight and lets her trivial preoccupations and personal hang-ups go, at the end of evermore Swift steps out of the deep freeze of a winter storm and rediscovers her sense of optimism. For all our scars and wounds, all the loneliness and despair we feel, Swift reminds us that we can still find hope in the knowledge that none of it will last forever. Just as winter inexorably gives way to spring and summer, our pain can give way to wisdom, strength of character, and even happiness.

With evermore, Swift has managed to produce an album that captures and reflects our current long, dark winter. Indeed, I personally find it impossible to listen to the record in the present moment without thinking of the collective distress and individual grief wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic: hundreds of thousands of lives lost across our own nation, mass deprivation on a scale unseen in decades, dreams deferred indefinitely, and the simple absence of basic human contact that we all took for granted at the beginning of the year. When we’re as isolated as we all are this winter, these wounds and scars ache all the more.

It’s a testament to Swift’s talent and skill as a songwriter that her lyrics can at once remain intensely personal and yet speak to the universals of the human experience. She’s done so once again on evermore, with bleak winter landscapes yielding to the possibility of personal resilience and emotional renewal. While we can’t escape the pain and sadness inherent in the human condition, evermore reminds us that they’re transient and won’t last forever. That’s a ray of light we all need, not just right now but for evermore.