exile

Feat. Bon Iver | Single | folklore (2020)

“exile” is a duet that was released on Taylor’s eighth studio album, folklore (2020). It describes two ex-lovers seeing each other following a break-up. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver describes feelings of confusion about how quickly a lover moved on, while Taylor offers a perspective about repeated warning signs that the relationship was no longer working.

Background and Composition

“exile” is a melancholic duet that fuses Taylor’s soft vocals with Vernon’s low-register baritone, serving as an unarticulated conversation between two former lovers, setting forth their lack of communication. This thematic aspect reflects in the melody and lyrics of “exile” as well: Melodically, the song is characterized by two voices in counterpoint — alternating while remaining as separate melodies. Similarly, the lyricism is structured after a call-and-response format, seeing Taylor and Vernon singing over each other rather than fully listening and responding to each other, giving the song an argumentative tone with no fruitful end. During folklore: the long pond studio sessions Taylor and Aaron Dessner talked about how the collaboration came together:

«William Bowery is Joe [Alwyn], as we all know. And Joe plays piano beautifully. He’s always just playing, and making things up, and kind of creating things. ‘exile’ was crazy 'cause Joe had written that entire piano part and was singing the Bon Iver part, ‘I can see you standing honey, with his arms around your body, laughing but the joke’s not funny at all’. He was just singing it the way that the whole first verse is. And so I was entranced and asked if we could keep writing that one. It was pretty obvious that it should be a duet because he’s got such a low voice and it sounded really could sung down there in that register. We’re really big Bon Iver fans and we know that Aaron knows him. But I was too afraid to suggest it. When I sent it to Aaron I was just like, ‘This is hopefully a duet, I don’t know who it would be with, who do you think would be good with this?’ And Aaron was like, ‘I think Justin would love this!’ And then he [Justin Vernon] wrote the whole bridge! I kept thinking, ‘This isn’t really going to happen, Justin is going to change his mind about this because this isn’t a part of my reality. There’s no way this is going to happen. He’s gonna record the vocals and then decide that he doesn’t wanna be on the record’. And then that just never happened. He just is on the album and he’s just the coolest!»

Taylor Swift
Joe told Vulture in 2022 that he grew up playing a bit of piano and was the guitarist in a “crappy school band called Anger Management.” He doesn’t consider himself a musician or songwriter and insists that he is, in fact, an awful singer. He was merely “messing around” on the piano when Taylor heard and walked over, intrigued. He had been singing the fully formed first verse to the song that became “exile.” According to him, there is probably a voice note somewhere that should be burned. “It was completely off the cuff, an accident. She said, ‘Can we try and sit down and get to the end together?’ And so we did. It was as basic as some people made sourdough.” He said he wasn’t trying to write to Taylor’s personal sound but had been listening to a lot of The National, Aaron Dessner’s band.

«It was really the most accidental thing to happen in lockdown. It wasn’t like, ‘It’s three o’clock, it’s time to write a song!’ It was just messing around on a piano and singing badly and being overheard and then thinking, you know, what if we tried to get to the end of it together?»

Joe Alwyn
It was surreal when his musings that quickly became sketches and then an actual track would go on to be produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner with vocals by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. “Sending it to Justin with the idea of doing a duet and getting voice notes back of him singing over the top and stuff was surreal. It was a perk of lockdown.” While he has no plans to write more music, Joe cherished the experience. “It was fun to do it together, and I was proud of it. It was nice getting such a positive reception.”

Lyrical Theme

All tracks on folklore were conceived by as imageries and visuals from Taylor’s deep subconscious, a result of her imagination “running wild” while isolating herself during the Covid-19 pandemic; “exile” rose out of one such imagery — a exiled man, who is “walking the bluffs of a land that isn’t his own, wondering how it all went so terribly, terribly wrong”. Regarding the story of the song, Taylor told a radio station in 2020:

«‘exile’ is a song that was written about miscommunications in relationships, and in the case of this song I imagined that the miscommunications ended the relationship. They led to the demise of this love affair, and now these two people are seeing each other out for the first time, and they keep miscommunicating with each other. They can’t quite get on the same page, they never were able to. And even in their end, even after they’ve broken up, they’re still not hearing each other. So we imagined the beginning would be his side of the story, the second verse her side of the story, and the end would be the story of them talking over each other and not hearing each other. We’re really stoked about how it turned out because it really does seem to be about the tragedy of two people, of two ships passing in the night.»

Taylor Swift
Like the majority of folklore, including “the 1“, “this is me trying” and “hoax“, “exile” also infuses a cinematic quality to its lyrics evoking visuals that allude to films, such as in the lines “I think I’ve seen this film before / and I didn’t like the ending”.

Production

In an interview with Pitchfork (2020), producer Aaron Dessner discussed how the collaboration came together: “When Taylor sent it to me as a voice memo, she sang both the male and female parts — as much as she could fit in without losing her breath. We talked about who she was imagining joining her, and she loves Justin [Vernon]’s voice in Bon Iver and Big Red Machine. She was like, ‘Oh my God, I would die if he would do it. It would be so perfect.’ I didn’t want to put pressure on Justin as his friend, so I said, ‘Well, it depends on if he’s inspired by the song but I know he thinks you’re rad.’ Which he does. So I sent him the song and he was really into it. He tweaked some parts and added parts as well — the bridge where he says, ‘Step right out.’ The end too, and his choral parts. It was fun because Justin and I work on a lot of stuff together, so it was very easy and natural. At some point I felt like a superfan, hearing two of my favorite singers. This was all being done remotely, but it was one of those moments where your head hits the back of the wall and you’re like, ‘Fuck. Okay.'”

Critical Reception

Upon release, “exile” received acclaim from music critics, who praised the duo’s vocal chemistry. E! Online‘s Billy Nilles described “exile” as a “devastating dream” and wrote that the relationship that inspired it must have hurt because it “hits like a punch to the gut”. Clash‘s Valerie Magan called the song an “impassioned” and “scintillating” duet that best shows the “sonic beauty” of folklore. Christopher Roberts of Under the Radar included it in his list of the nine best songs of folklore’s release week; he noted that “Swift and Vernon’s voices mesh together well” and the latter sounds like Peter Gabriel on the track. Writing for Consequence of Sound, Matt Melis named “exile” the “Song of the Week” upon the release of folklore, and called the duo’s pairing a “minor miracle in 2020”.

Elle named the song as the second-best of 2020, while Men’s Health included it in its ranking of best 25 songs of 2020. Laura Paterson, editor at Vogue, listed “exile” as one of the 29 best songs of 2020, and christened it “the melancholic duo that 2020 deserved”, merging “an angsty, sing-your-guts-out Taylor anthem” with “mid-2000s nostalgia for the folksy sounds of Bon Iver”. Surprised by a Swift-Vernon duet, NBHAP named the song the eleventh best of 2020, and welcomed Vernon’s return to his “pure and deep voice”. Slant named “exile” as the fourth-best song of 2020. Complex critic Aia Adriano placed “exile” at No. 4 on her list ranking the best songs of 2020.

Commercial Performance

The song reached high positions in many countries worldwide. In the United States, “exile” debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, giving Taylor her 28th top-ten hit and Bon Iver’s first. The song is one of Taylor’s record-extending 18 top-ten debuts on the chart. Marking both Taylor’s and Bon Iver’s first appearance on Billboard Adult Alternative Songs airplay chart, “exile” debuted at No. 37 on the chart dated August 15, 2020. It debuted at No. 2 on Billboard Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart and placed No. 5 in its second week—the smallest drop of any of Taylor’s songs on the chart; Billboard opined that “the budding airplay could bode well for “exile” in terms of chart longevity”. The song was one of three Billboard Hot 100 top-10 hits from folklore and its third-highest peaking track on the chart, behind “cardigan” (No. 1) and “the 1” (No. 4). “exile” also debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard Digital Song Sales chart. It reached No. 10 on Billboard Adult Alternative Songs, giving Taylor her first top-10 entry on the chart.

Award Recognition

“exile” was nominated for “Best Pop Duo/Group Performance” at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards, becoming Taylor’s third nomination in the category, following “Breathe” featuring Colbie Cailat (2008) and “Bad Blood” featuring Kendrick Lamar (2015).

Lyrics

[Verse 1: Justin Vernon]
I can see you standing, honey
With his arms around your body
Laughin’, but the joke’s not funny at all
And it took you five whole minutes
To pack us up and leave me with it
Holdin’ all this love out here in the hall

[Chorus: Justin Vernon]
I think I’ve seen this film before
And I didn’t like the ending
You’re not my homeland anymore
So what am I defending now?
You were my town, now I’m in exile, seein’ you out
I think I’ve seen this film before

[Post-Chorus: Justin Vernon]
Ooh, ooh, ooh

[Verse 2: Taylor Swift]
I can see you starin’, honey
Like he’s just your understudy
Like you’d get your knuckles bloody for me
Second, third, and hundredth chances
Balancin’ on breaking branches
Those eyes add insult to injury

[Chorus: Taylor Swift]
I think I’ve seen this film before
And I didn’t like the ending
I’m not your problem anymore
So who am I offending now?
You were my crown, now I’m in exile, seein’ you out
I think I’ve seen this film before
So I’m leaving out the side door

[Bridge: Justin Vernon, Taylor Swift & Both]
So step right out, there is no amount
Of crying I can do for you
All this time
We always walked a very thin line
You didn’t even hear me out (You didn’t even hear me out)
You never gave a warning sign (I gave so many signs)
All this time
I never learned to read your mind (Never learned to read my mind)
I couldn’t turn things around (You never turned things around)
‘Cause you never gave a warning sign (I gave so many signs)
So many signs, so many signs
You didn’t even see the signs

[Chorus: Taylor Swift & Justin Vernon, Taylor Swift]
I think I’ve seen this film before
And I didn’t like the ending
You’re not my homeland anymore
So what am I defending now?
You were my town, now I’m in exile, seein’ you out
I think I’ve seen this film before
So I’m leavin’ out the side door

[Outro: Justin Vernon & Taylor Swift]
So step right out, there is no amount
Of crying I can do for you
All this time
We always walked a very thin line
You didn’t even hear me out (Didn’t even hear me out)
You never gave a warning sign (I gave so many signs)
All this time
I never learned to read your mind (Never learned to read my mind)
I couldn’t turn things around (You never turned things around)
‘Cause you never gave a warning sign (I gave so many signs)
You never gave a warning sign (All this time)
(So many signs) I never learned to read your mind
(So many signs) I couldn’t turn things around (I couldn’t turn things around)
‘Cause you never gave a warning sign (You never gave a warning sign)
You never gave a warning sign
Ah, ah

General Information
Albumfolklore
FeatureBon Iver
ReleasedJuly 24, 2020
RecordedMay–July, 2020
StudioKitty Committee (Los Angeles)
April Base (Fall Creek, WI)
GenreFolk Pop
Length4:45
LabelRepublic Records
SongwritersTaylor Swift
William Bowery (Joe Alwyn)
Justin Vernon
ProducersAaron Dessner
Joe Alwyn
FOLKLORE CHRONOLOGY
the last great american dynastyexilemy tears ricochet
Official Lyric Video
Single Artwork
Live Performance
Lyric Video
Official Audio
Official Live Audio