On ‘Midnights,’ Taylor Swift Assumes New Confessional Depths
Last year, Taylor Swift rerecorded two of her early albums, 2008’s “Fearless” and 2012’s “Red,” as part of her plan to regain control of her master recordings. The faithful rework of “Red” revisited the moment just before her stylistic rebirth in 2014’s “1989,” whereupon she relinquished her Country beginnings in favor of a mainstream pop sheen. That reinvention extended through a three-album stretch, at which point the world succumbed to the pandemic and Swift reverted to rustic stylings with the indie folk overhaul of 2020’s “Folklore” and “Evermore.” Swift announced her tenth studio album, “Midnights,” in August and kept its nature shrouded in secrecy, encouraging wild speculation with a rollout of a little more than cryptic TikTok videos. As it turns out, the followup to Swift’s “Red” rework parallels that of the original “Red,” while heralding the second pop era of Swift’s career, picking up neatly where 2019’s “Lover” left off. This time, however, Swift is older and wiser, and her new songs find her endeavoring to demonstrate that she’s not so innocent. In Swift’s own words, the album’s thirteen songs tell “the stories of thirteen sleepless nights scattered throughout my life.” As such, they combine bits of Swift’s various eras with a new vitality.
“Lavender Haze” establishes the designs of the album. From the onset, Swift is back to an overtly pop sound, edging slightly outward lyrically amid understated musical gestures. The opener is built around a muffled, soulful soundbite. Under Swift’s voice and the beat, we hear an indiscreet low-end murmur, like music heard faintly through club walls. Swift resides on the other side, having taken refuge in the “Lavender Haze,” a space removed from the tabloids that continue to harass her about the prospects of a marriage to long-term partner Joe Alwyn. Here, she privately indulges the swelling romance at hand, singing, “I feel the lavender haze creeping up on me.” Songs like “Maroon” paint a vivid picture of an ambiguous anecdote with the same type of specific detail that made Swift’s songwriting on “Red” so memorable, for instance a “”roommate’s cheap-ass screw-top rosé,” which ends up responsible for “the burgundy on my t-shirt / When you splashed your wine into me.” Scarlet, the titular maroon, and various similar shades continue to pop up, fleshing out the vision of the “lavender haze,” and giving the album a unique aesthetic that will be a treat for synesthetes. As it turns out, “Maroon” could be not only a B-side from “Red” but a revisiting of its title track, another remembrance of a lost love. Whereas Swift once recalled, “Loving him was red,” she now looks back with a darkened palette and redresses, “It was maroon.”
“Anti-Hero” is a lyrical standout that finds Swift confronting herself with a new direct honesty. The track plods on, upbeat but restrained, much like Swift’s voice, which confesses, “I’ll stare directly at the sun, but never in the mirror / It must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero.” The song revisits fears of abandonment explored in 2019’s “The Archer,” and features some provocatively vivid phrasing — “Sometimes, I feel like everybody is a sexy baby / And I’m a monster on the hill / Too big to hang out, slowly lurching toward your favorite city.” Swift is quite unsparing with her self-criticism, and she gets unusually verbose at moments. Lines like “Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism / Like some kind of congressman?” mark her current distance from her country roots perhaps more than any of her musical stylistic turns.
Meanwhile, “You’re on Your Own, Kid” sounds like it could have appeared on “Red,” while the lyrics parallel those of Lover’s “It’s Nice To Have a Friend” from 2019’s “Lover.” Swift’s recollection of a fruitless young romance builds to the climactic, titular realization, casting a dark shadow over the rosy remembrance. On “Midnight Rain,” Swift recalls another past romance, but this time it’s she who is the heartbreaker. A pitched-down, ostensibly male, voice delivers the hook, creating a sense of memories surfacing distant and distorted. Marking a considerable stylistic evolution, the song’s standard, radio pop stylings are framed in post-dubstep touches — syncopated hi hats and a synth bleep that cues the chorus. The latter move carries over to “Question…?” whereupon a spacious arrangement, which allows Swift’s lyrics to predominate, shifts into drive. A beat kicks in just as Swift poses her “question”: “Did you ever have someone kiss you in a crowded room / And every single one of your friends was makin’ fun of you / But fifteen seconds later, thеy were clappin’ too?” Swift is especially expressive with her voice in this song, recalling certain details in a flat, dulled tone, later suddenly curling her voice into its most delicate configuration when she asks, “Then what did you do?”
“Midnights” suffers one major letdown, which is the meeting of minds between Swift and Lana Del Rey. For a collaboration between two of the most resonant female voices of the last decade, “Snow on the Beach” is frustratingly pedestrian. The two singers’ voices mesh over subdued orchestral stylings in a fantastical account of a romantic encounter, and while the sound of their voices together is a treat, the song is otherwise unremarkable, both musically and lyrically. As it turns out, however, Lana del Rey makes her way more impressively into other songs, not as a feature, but as an audible influence. The result is a type of vitality never quite heard before from Taylor Swift. “Vigilante Shit” is the prime example, a song that would sound perfectly in place on a Lana Del Rey record. Over a minimal hip-hop beat, Swift tells a noir crime tale, replete with bits of jazzy phrasing clipped right from Del Rey’s playbook and wordplay on sordid details — “He was doin’ lines and crossin’ all of mine.” Swift drops hints about the inspiration for this revenge fantasy, continuing, “Someone told his white collar crimes to the FBI.” It so happens that Scooter Braun — the notorious executive who acquired the masters to Swift’s first six albums, prompting her to wrestle back the rights in her grand rerecording scheme — was sued last year under claims of fraud and breach of contract. Swift’s story goes on to mention an ex-wife, who “needed cold hard proof,” and taunts, “ She had the envelope, where you think she got it from?”
Whereas Swift edged on an amorous attachment in the opener, she approaches the same situation with a coy reservation in “Labyrinth,” objecting, “Uh-oh, I’m fallin’ in love.” The song is a stylistic standout, far removed from not only Taylor’s organic output but even her usual pop fare. Swift prioritizes ambience, taking a decidedly electronic pop direction, singing over synth pads and a faint kick drum pulse. Shifting gears again, “Sweet Nothing” brings the album’s most whimsical musical moment, a loosely structured tune in which Swift delivers her lyrics in wispy utterances over keys and occasional brass bursts. It’s an example of how easily Swift can venture beyond the relatively rigid confines that characterize her musical output shen she so pleases.
The heartbreaker of “Midnight Rain” and the femme fatale of “Vigilante Shit” come to the forefront in the final number, “Mastermind,” which best captures the new devilish streak that sets Swift’s latest album apart. Having long portrayed herself as the vulnerable figure in love songs, Swift now assumes an altogether different role, that of a crafty vixen secretly pulling the strings all along. Over a synth ripple, she suggests, “What if I told you I’m a mastermind?” adding, with relish, “And now you’re mine / It was all by dеsign.”
Then, just hours after Swift released her new album, she dropped “Midnights (3am Edition).” The bulk of its seven extra songs are also primarily about the drama of past romances, with some much deeper cuts. What is something of a surprise is how they simultaneously cover a wide range and add cohesion to the original album as a whole. In “The Great War,” Swift runs through a trendy melodic phrasing routine that will be familiar from hit singles by everyone from Carly Rae Jepsen to Maroon 5 as she revisits “Reputation’s” “Dress,” echoing lines like “And if I get burned, at least we were electrified” in a refrain of “We’re burned for better…’Cause we survived the Great War.” On the lighter side is “Paris,” in which Swift adopts a conversational tone and reverts to relatively mild, escapist, diaristic fare. The major musical standout, “Glitch,” is a brilliant leap forward in songwriting. The title regards the type of romance that seems too good to be true, as if there is a glitch in the matrix. Fittingly, Swift pulls ever so slightly from glitchy electronic stylings that have never before made their way into her sound. A bassline plods in triplets over drums in regular time. Choruses are triggered by bursts of random noise, while Swift’s clean vocals are ensconced in static and accented by woozy, pitch-altered harmonies.
In the deeply personal ballad “Bigger Than the Whole Sky,” Swift reflects unsettlingly upon something that might have come. The stylings suit the subject matter, with a gently bending guitar in a wash of synths, as Swift nudges unrealized possibilities in a desolate aftermath. This time, Swift sings about a greater loss, as she laments, “I’m never gonna meet / What could’ve been, would’ve been / What should’ve been you.” While she keeps the specific subject matter ambiguous, the lyrics seemingly evoke the tragedy of a miscarriage, making for a widely resonant story that becomes Swift’s most vulnerable one-to-date. “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve,” sees strained contemplation give way to brooding and anguish as Swift recounts a youthful romance that left her scarred. In what plays as a sequel to “Dear John,” from 2010’s “Speak Now,” the song appears to revisit her stint with John Mayer at age 19, a topic that triggers dramatic excesses in plenty of religious language — “Oh, God rest my soul / I miss who I used to be / The tomb won’t close.”
The loss of innocence that Swift laments here informs other songs, although the events come jumbled in the tracklist, as they might surface in 3am flashbacks. “High Infidelity,” delivers on its title, as a calloused, corrupted Swift gleefully sings, “I was dancing around, dancing around it / High infidelity.” While the song doesn’t exactly find Swift selling her soul to the devil, it does find her, tongue-in-cheek, in a dalliance with transgression. By the point of the finale, “Dear Reader,” Swift is singing, “My fourth drink in my hand / These desperate prayers of a cursed man / Spilling out to you for free.” As the track trudges along, with sampled vocals shifting pitch in real time, Swift sings with verve and resolution, instructing, ““Dear reader, when you aim at the devil / Make sure you don’t miss.” The final impression with which Swift leaves us, on not only “Midnights” but the expanded edition, is of a woman spelling out for the world that she is not that innocent.
Last year’s new recordings of “Fearless” and “Red,” with every original detail meticulously recreated, were the sound of an artist reclaiming control. The victims of record label exploitation over the years are countless, yet no one before Swift executed a decisive victory by merely playing and capturing their own music. Swift’s career indeed hints at the workings of a “mastermind,” one who fully reveals herself on “Midnights.” The new album finds Swift returning rejuvenated after her brief folk respite, having accrued momentum to make for a heightened impact, as she continues to elevate her song craft, this time with a more vulnerable, deeply intimate and even slightly savage streak, as she dares to be more transparent than ever while while baring her darker side, adding a new dimension to her persona and songwriting.
“Midnights” released Oct. 21 and Midnights (3am Edition) released Oct. 22 on Apple Music.