All the old Taylors came to the phone Friday night at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. For the purposes of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, these past personas are all very much alive, because what died didn’t stay dead, and… well, quoting lyrics will only get you so far in describing a show that may best first be characterized by its essential stats: 44 songs in 192 minutes. For anyone in her audience who hasn’t yet crossed the bridge into middle age, this show may be like having their lives flash before their eyes, at curfew-pushing length. The elders in their midst might just call it Springsteenian.
Before the tour was announced and put on sale last November, the question on most fans’ minds since about mid-pandemic was: When Swift returns to touring, which album, or albums, is she going to be more or less touring behind for the next cycle? The ingenious answer was: all of them. And not just “the new ones.” As Swift reminded a crowd that needed little reminding a ways into Friday night’s tour opening, “We added four new members to the family” since everyone last convened for the “Reputation” tour in 2018. “Their names are ‘Lover,’ ‘Folklore,’ ‘Evermore’ and ‘Midnights.’” The setlist showed a numerical bias toward the four newbies, but all 10 of her studio albums — not counting re-records — get their own isolated segment in this career-surveying show. For a couple of the albums, her 2006 debut and (curiously) “Speak Now,” the mini-set for that record amounts to just one song, but the other eight each get a considerable amount of stage time. It’s a gambit that probably no one of her stature has ever tried to pull off on a big tour before: going through an entire prolific catalog, one album at a time, non-chronologically but exhaustively … a greatest-hits set, more or less, yes, but an audacious one.
Those of us who came into the stadium expecting a more randomly ordered best-of show might have been perplexed by the opening: a snippet of one of her deeper album tracks, “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” succeeded by a longer, poppier full run-through of yet another song never released as a single, “Cruel Summer.” As “The Man, “You Need to Calm Down,” “Lover” and “The Archer” followed in short succession, many were having the same thought: Man, Swift really, really loves the “Lover” album. Actually, somewhere in that sequence the tour’s overriding structure came into focus — that this would really be the “Albums Tour,” with a less clunky name.
Given how schematic the overall concept is, there was a savviness to which album came at what point in the show, apparent only from thinking backwards from the finale. It made sense for the seven songs from the still hot-off-the-presses “Midnights” to be the last in the set — that album’s emphasis on heavy electronic programming directly preceded, for symmetry’s sake, by an acoustic-piano solo version of “Tim McGraw,” the sole pick from 2006’s “Taylor Swift.” It also made sense for the concert to kick off with a bunch of songs from the last album in a pure pop vein that is not the new one, “Lover,” to start the show. Swift considers the like-minded 2020 releases “Folklore” and “Evermore” to be separate “eras,” at least for the purposes of this outing, so their segments thus needed to be placed well apart in the setlist, less anyone spend too lengthy a single part of the show peering at forested backdrops. If her two most popular albums are “Fearless” and “1989,” one would need to be placed near the beginning and one almost at the end, for further bookending’s sake. And so on; since Swift is rarely one to explain herself any more via interviews, one does spend a lot of time wondering how the gears came to churn the way they do in something like this.
A certain type of fan might wish she would reinvent some of her catalog music for the purpose of touring, but the star who has rendered her “Taylor’s Version” renditions as exact soundalikes has never see arrangement-tweaking as much of a priority. Apart from the handful of solo songs, the music sounds almost exactly as it did on the records, even when it is freshly played by a band visible on either end of the widest big screen in the land. (Swift’s own pre-recorded stacked background vocals just about always blend in with what she and the backup singers are doing, as any listener will notice.) It’s reimagining the visuals that she cherishes, and to that end, there was no shortage of all-new production design, costuming and choreography.
The stage set is as wide and almost as tall as it was for the “Reputation” tour, but most of that heft is put to use with a giant curved screen now, versus the sense of a multi-story dystopian city you got in 2018. Scaffolding comes into play once, in a very big way, with the staging early on of “The Man,” where Swift — in a skirt that somehow comes across as business attire — literally works her way to the top amid a phalanx of dancing flunkies. This time, anyway, most of the action takes place on ramps extending across the stadium floor, where she and her dancers will stop to engage with the crowd at a halfway point, or sometimes even two-thirds of the way out onto the floor, making sure the audience in the furthermost decks feels directly played to now and again.
Sometimes what is on the mega-Cinemascope screen directly mirrors what is happening on the stage, or the ramps, with a lot of foresight involved to capture exactly the right shots. When “Style” occurs late in the show, you get a backward-tracking shot of Swift and her eight-women-strong girl squad moving in a single line toward the camera, to the suitable-for-marching beat. In “My Tears Ricochet,” the song that she apparently wrote as a bitter elegy for the death of her relationship with Big Machine, those same women were seen on the ramp and on screen dressed in black, forming a very stylistic runway funeral procession.
At other times, there is freshly filmed studio footage to augment the live action: “Wildest Dream” has a sleeping Swift writhing alone on bedsheets; “Anti-Hero” comically imagines her as a 500-foot woman, wrecking a model cityscape like a mortified King Kong.
The most literal physical set is the cabin, complete with smoking chimney, that Swift sings from during the “Folklore” material, looking like something out of Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy of merging the indoor and outdoor, but with lots and lots of moss. (The green stuff has even taken over the piano she sits at for a while.) A few props pop up, although not many, as in “Blank Space,” when some of her dancers come out on what look like neon bicycles, and Swift herself takes up a glowing golf club, although, unlike in the music video, no actual physical vengeance is wreaked.
The real star of the show, design-wise, may be the giant building blocks that occasionally rise out of the center platform. Sometimes they just form an elevated place from which Swift and her crew can line up, as many as 15 strong, strike a pose. At other points they reassemble themselves, almost in Transformer style, to reform as staircases.
Technology is not something these many setpieces depend on to succeed, however. The visualization of “Tolerate It,” a number about a woman’s feelings of long-term emotional neglect, was played out with Swift standing on top of and eventually crawling across a dining room table of “Citizen Kane”-style length to literally get in the face of a disinterested partner. One of the most effective bits in the show — and, OK, the closest to overtly sexual — is during the latest album’s “Vigilante Shit,” when Swift and her dancers straddle wooden seats. As “Chicago” and other cabaret-style productions have shown, sometimes a chair is not just a chair.
Swift is always savvy to make sure the more Broadway-ready aspects of her tours does not preclude one-on-one moments. Through the sheer volume of songs crammed into the set, there is perhaps a bit less time for “and then I wrote” spoken interludes than in some previous tours, although there are enough. The pace is furious until it’s not, and suddenly Swift is sitting alone at her guitar or piano, at the other end of the arena from the stage, explaining that, yes, there will be a wild-card slot in these sets, just as there always is. For the ”Eras Tour,” she explained, there’ll be a completely different song played every night at a certain point (she added the caveat that if she really messes up a song in what is meant to be its singular appearance, there’s a chance she’ll try it another night). For opening night, the song she chose for this one-time-only appearance was the “Folklore” underdog favorite “Mirrorball,” a tune she candidly admitted was not an indictment of need fame-seekers, as some have supposed, but about her own need to “be loved by you.” As a one-off, it was — true to the song’s theme — utterly endearing.
One thing that’s changed in the last five years is one era-specific track going from being one of the least likely songs to show up live to it being the surest bet. “I don’t know if you can tell from the color blocking, but we are in the ‘Red’ era, currently,” she said, picking up an acoustic guitar as the rest of her crew took five. “The fact you embraced it the way you did when it came out in 2012… that blew me away, but I never could have imagined then what you would end up doing a decade later when I wanted to claim that album as my own. I wanted to play one more song from that album, if you have an extra 10 minutes to spare.” And the song that once only showed up in sets in the wild-card spot now took its place as now and probably forever the centerpiece of her set, even if “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)” did indeed take a slot that probably could have been filled with enough other mashups to take the song count closer to 50.
As much delight as there is in hearing a hit as mammoth as “You Belong With Me” or an album track as dramatically indelible as “Don’t Blame Me” again, this tour’s greatest value may be in finally giving an airing to the “Folklore”/”Evermore” nexus of contemplative material, with or without the chimney smoke. Swift seemed to take particular relish in introducing “Champagne Problems” into her live repertoire, saying that since she wrote it she’d imagined the crowd screaming a climactic passage along with her — a section that is one of those that would earn the show an R for language if it were a movie.
The show left some unanswered questions, like: Why only one song from “Speak Now,” “Enchanted”? Especially when that’s rumored as the next “Taylor’s Version” edition to be coming, that album made for a strange choice to be underrepresented. Yet the show is so overpacked as it is — with Swift going on at 8 and exiting at 11:12, there may have to be cuts made for future engagements unless she has the resources to pay some overtime fees. (She probably does.)
There were enough mashups early in the show that it felt like it might turn into an overly rushed assembly line, but ultimately that didn’t turn out to be the case. It’s really only a handful of the 44 songs that are represented as snippets, or passing parts of mashups, although the attentive will note nips and tucks here and there to smashes like “Style” that ultimately aren’t very consequential. Sometimes the medleys, when they do occur, beg interesting questions. Why does the winsomely youthful “August” lead directly into the bitterly adult cheatin’ song “Illicit Affairs” for a coda? There’s some kind of invisible thread there that’s interesting in a show that otherwise isn’t about subtle statements.
Hearing the clubby thump of the latest single, “Lavender Haze,” kick in as the show enters its tenth and final stretch was a kick, in a pop world where most veteran performers put their new material in the middle of a show, rather than the climax. But the “Midnights” album is still riding high as a top 10 staple five months after it came out — and it makes for a fun action finale, as it were, due to the fact that it has some of the snark and fiestiness that arose with “1989” and “Reputation” but took a back seat during the folkier albums.
The new album’s “Karma” couldn’t be a more unlikely choice for a final song — if you had this on your betting card as the number she would go out on, collect your million dollars — but it’s terrific hearing her choose an outlier song instead of an obvious or anthemic one to wrap things up. It’s redolent, actually, of how she ended the last tour with a similarly feisty and unexpected choice, “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” “Karma” seemed like a throwaway to some when “Midnights” first came out, but it holds up as not just kind of a funny eff-you — and her funniest song, which is saying a lot in a catalog that includes “Blank Space” — but also a celebration of the good guys winning. Which you’d have to say is part of the big picture here, when the person who has come up with the single greatest body of pop songwriting in the 21st century is also its most popular performer. How did the stars align that way?
One side effect, though, of grouping the songs together by album is immediately recognizing and regretting which songs from that catalog didn’t make the cut. Is it possible for a show to last more than three hours and not only not quite feel like the marathon it is, but to actually “leave ‘em wanting more,” as the old show-biz maxim advises? It is.
The full setlist:
“Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince”
“You Need to Calm Down”
“You Belong With Me”
“Tis the Damn Season”
“…Ready for It?”
“Don’t Blame Me”
“Look What You Made Me Do”
“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
“I Knew You Were Trouble”
“All Too Well (10 Minute Version)”
“The Last Great American Dynasty”
“My Tears Ricochet”
“Shake It Off”
“Mirrorball” (solo acoustic — wild card slot)
“Tim McGraw” (solo acoustic)