FOXBOROUGH — One of the many high points of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, which opened its three-show run at Gillette Stadium on Friday, comes near the end of the night, when she throws caution to the wind and opens her sizeable songbook to perform what are known as “surprise songs.” Friday’s first, “Should’ve Said No,” was a shout-along kick to the curb from her self-titled debut that she sang and strummed with gusto; the second was “Better Man,” which Swift had written for her 2012 album “Red” and which was recorded by the country-pop act Little Big Town four years later.
Swift introduced the wistful, yet resolute ballad, which she performed solo at piano, by talking about its genesis, remarking, “It was so amazing to be recognized as a songwriter by another artist who wanted to record a song I had written.” The last few years of Swift’s career — which encompass not only the ambitious, dazzling stadium jaunt she’s currently on, but four brand-new albums and two re-recordings of her older albums (with another one on the way in July) — have all been further proving that point, establishing Swift as one of this generation’s leading singer-songwriters while also flaunting her pop star bona fides.
The Eras Tour setlist is organized around Swift’s discography, which now spans 17 years and 10 albums (not counting the re-recordings, all of which have copious amounts of bonus material); each had its own mini-set with appropriate outfits and set pieces. It puts forth the importance of the album as a cohesive body of work while also giving live airings to songs from the four albums she’s released since her last Gillette run, which happened all the way back in 2018. (The festival that was supposed to hit Foxborough in 2020 to celebrate 2019′s “Lover,” the first album to be featured on Friday, was a lockdown casualty.)
Swift winkingly noted that she’s known for using her own life for material. But on 2020′s “Folklore,” which she said she began writing “two days into the pandemic,” she broadened her perspective, brainstorming songs from newly invented characters’ perspectives; cuts like the forlorn “Cardigan” and the pensive “The Last Great American Dynasty” revealed new dimensions in Swift’s craft, and even though part of those songs’ appeal on record lay in their homespun feel, their power was not lessened by their being blown up to stadium-sized proportions. She also performed the 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” a slow-burning recollection of a relationship told in images that was one of her best songs when it appeared in five-plus-minute form on “Red”; the lengthier version ratchets up the dread that comes with recalling the amassed slights of a curdling romance, making lyrics like “And you call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest” even more devastating.
Those moments of catharsis were complemented by big-tent pop blowouts. Songs like the gleeful see-ya anthem “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and the defiantly upbeat “Shake It Off” allowed the massive crowd to explode in song and movement along with Swift and her throng of backup dancers. Others used the mammoth stage to staggering effect; the simmering “Lover” track “The Man,” which plays with notions of institutional sexism, was set in a colossal office building with Swift sporting a sequined blazer, while the serpentine “Reputation” cut “Look What You Made Me Do” had a matrix of Taylors, all wearing different outfits to signify her transformations over the last almost-two decades, thrashing on the screen behind her.
Friday night’s 45-song set ended with a set spotlighting “Midnights,” the prickly, yet glossy album she released at the end of last year. Its lead single “Anti-Hero,” with its immediate, self-lacerating refrain “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem it’s me,” has become a rallying cry for those aware of their inner monster, and the response Friday reflected that. Other tracks, like the spite-selfie “Bejeweled” and the icy closer “Karma,” further showed her ability to bring together top-tier pop songwriting and rafter-reaching spectacle. In the end, the Eras Tour brought her career to a full circle — one filled with tens of thousands of people, and open to whatever might come next.
With Phoebe Bridgers and GAYLE
At Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Friday; also Saturday and Sunday
Maura Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.