Before 2020, Taylor Swift was a lot of things — country music gamechanger, hit songwriter, and stadium-commanding popstar — but indie-folk enchantress was not one of them. The always-busy Swift, who lived an album-promo-tour-repeat existence for some 13 years, has deserved a substantial break for a while now. But unplugging isn’t easy when you’ve spent the entirety of your adult life constantly reinventing yourself to remain relevant and please the public eye, and it took a global pandemic to get her to sink into stillness. By allowing her to do so without guilt or a fear of fading away, Swift was able to sit with her many emotions and leisurely stretch the songwriting muscles fans have ogled at since her emergence. With tours canceled, she didn’t need a “stadium song.” With people stuck at home, she didn’t need a “radio song.” All the creative shackles of making a mainstream record were suddenly gone. Instead, Folklore and Evermore — both of which were co-written and almost entirely produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner — sound like Swift plopped in front of a cabin’s fireplace with a glass of wine, pulled the top of her head open like a door, and just poured the contents out. Dessner, already a master of creating space around complex lyricism, was the ideal collaborator. Two decades with the National have resulted in a signature production style that’s remarkably airy without being minimalistic; it’s still multi-layered but he never takes away from the storytelling. With Dessner by her side, Swift is more experimental, alternative, and poetic — not to mention critically acclaimed — than ever before. S.H.