Taylor Swift’s ‘Midnights’ Marks a Return to Electronic, Confessional Pop That’s Worth Losing Sleep Over: Album Review
It’s “Folklore” no more; Miss Americana-leaner, we hardly knew ye. Solved in one simultaneous worldwide blast: the mystery of what Taylor Swift’s new album might actually sound like — a basic style question whose answer was held NDA-level-close for months, amid a trail of Easter eggs that substituted for anything so old-fashioned and basic as, say, an advance single. With the first pulse of the first track, “Midnights” is back at the oasis of pop music steeped in synthesizers and programmed beats, not acoustic instruments and high-string guitars. She’s returned to what at this point counts as her most familiar stylistic home — a mostly electronic bed of sounds that, for the length of this album, anyway, is coming back stronger than a ‘90s trend, to borrow a phrase.
But her return to something close to the sonic territory that filled stadiums in the mid-to-late 2010s doesn’t feel like a retreat. She didn’t take that trip into the woods with the 2020 twin peaks of “Folklore” and “Evermore” without picking up some things she could bring back with her in a full-scale return to pop. What she’s retained is a confidence in sustaining intimacy over a whole album without needing to turn it into a tour de force, and a lack of a need to chase hit singles (although “Anti-Hero” could become an odd one out of the gate — who knows?) or worry about bangers when a mid-tempo mood can be streamlined and mainlined over an entire album. It might feel wrong to call these songs “bedroom pop” when they probably will be part of a stadium setlist next year. But if you’re looking for antecedents for “Midnights,” yes, think of “1989,” “Reputation” and “Lover” — but think of those albums’ quieter, mid-tempo-and-under moments, like “Delicate,” “Wildest Dreams,” “Clean,” even the sexy “False God,” not the bigger blowout singles that propelled those albums into the stratosphere. Certain prior requirements for really massive moments in a Taylor Swift album may, in fact, have been shaken off.
A loose template is set right at the outset with “Lavender Haze,” a loosely emo-erotic opener that makes a nod toward modern R&B, with its unassuming four-on-the-floor beat and a pretty falsetto that Swift tends to bust out nowadays when she’s feeling particularly sensual (see: “Dress,” one of the undersung highlights from “Reputation”). It’s an early indication that Swift has for now given up being Miss Americana in favor of being Miss Not-Afraid-to-Borrow-Kendrick’s-Producer, as Sounwave makes one of a couple appearances as co-writer and co-producer alongside Jack Antonoff, who otherwise co-helms the whole thing with the star. This opening track also establishes that Swift is mostly back in autobiographical territory as a lyricist, after having pointedly indulged in some fictional character writing across the two “Everlore” albums.
“I’m damned if I do give a damn what people think,” she sings. “I’ve been under scrutiny, you handle it beautifully,” Swift adds, singing to the same beau she’s been singing to on record on record for, can it be, four albums and five year, now. Those particular sentiments sound right out of “Reputation,” when she was first exploring the then-new idea that someone could see her through the distractions. But Swift remains nothing if not eager to shine light into corners of her personality that haven’t been flagrant in her writing before, for the sake of self-revelation or keeping us interested or both. So it’s kind of a kick when “Lavender Haze” kicks over from being a you-really-like-me-or-me song to something that has some feistier, even provocative feminist edges. Without resorting to anything so gauche as a People magazine interview, Swift finally lets loose on how she really feels about people speculating about when she’s going to turn into housewife material. “All they keep asking me is if I’m gonna be your bride / The only kinda girl they see is a one-night or a wife… / No deal / The 1950s shit they want from me.” Don’t worry, darling, indeed!
Yet, despite that bit of defensiveness about feeling shoved toward a marriage-and-babies box, “Midnights” is more romantic than not, as an album, even withstanding plenty of detours into a witty churlishness or affecting lonesomeness along the way. It’s got to be a sign of something that “Midnights” is the first of her 10 albums to both begin and end with unmitigated love songs.
The closing number, “Mastermind,” is far comical than “Lavender Haze,” as a bookend, although you won’t always know whether to laugh or cry. It’s a love song with massive, borderline-hilarious hubris, summing up an album that isn’t afraid to mix cockiness with lovey-doveyness. In those closer, Swift declares that neither providence nor her partner’s free will factored in too much in their love affair coming together, as she pulled all the invisible strings. “I laid the groundwork / And then just like clockwork / The dominos cascaded in a line / What if I told you I’m a mastermind / And now you’re mine / It was all by design.” She makes sure to describe her guy as in on the joke, smirking at the prospect of having been manipulated into true love. As Dua Lipa would say, we may not be quite this used to a female alpha.
“Mastermind” might come off almost as an extended gag about her own powers of romantic omnipotence, if she didn’t start throwing in backstory lyrics that suddenly make the whole thing startlingly real, not just a funny conceit “You see all the wisest women had to do it this way / ‘Cause we were born to be the pawn in every lover’s game,” she sings, talking about needing to reverse millennia of sexist social engineering. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” And then, in the bridge, almost out of nowhere, it’s true confessions time, relating not just to her current love affair but maybe the one with her public, too: “No one wanted to play with me as a little kid / So I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since / To make them love me and make it seem effortless / This is the first time I’ve felt the need to confess / And I swear / I’m only cryptic and Machiavellian ‘cause I care.”
To which the only proper response, as a listener, is: Yowza! Is she being Machiavellian in telling us that vulnerability and childhood hurt are responsible for being Machiavellian, or is this, like, actually touching stuff? Maybe both, but you’d be beyond cynical not to realize that there’s a real heart being exposed here, amid an adroitness for honest self-revelation that’s as canny as anything we’ve gotten out of a reigning superstar since John Lennon told us he didn’t believe in Beatles.
Before they get to this album capper, fans will likely have heard “Anti-Hero,” another track in which Swift makes a gesture of laying it all out on the line, and manages to turn the confessional line “I’ll stare directly at the sun but never in the mirror” into one of the year’s great earworm pop hooks. “Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism / Like some kind of congressman?” she asks, mixing earnest candor with a bit of a punchline as an addendum, as she’s increasingly prone to do as her writing prowess grows. There’s even a verse in which she fantasizes about having gone to hell for not being as earnest as she’s seemed. But possibly the finest moment in “Anti-Hero” is the subtle delivery she lends to the last stanza, where she repeats the refrain, “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me,” sounding out of breath, as if she’d just had to rush through the door to make this random, bald admission. It’s the quirky little vocal touch you only get out of someone who’s been at this game long enough to become a master of tragicomic dramaturgy as a singer as well as songwriter.
But is “Midnights” more of an album in which Taylor Swift takes responsibility and even beats up on herself, as “Anti-Hero” would have it, or one where she establishes a strong sense of moral superiority — kind of a stock-in-trade all the way back to “Should’ve Said No” and its teenage kin? Seems like she’s gonna continue to have it both ways, and thank God for that, because if the stars are just like us, they’re really just like us when it comes to that. We still like Swift when she gets angry, and good-God-amighty, does she twist a knife in a song or two here, although she continues to get funnier with each grind of the axe, in a way that could not have been imagined when she was a nascent score-settler of 16 or 17.
Truly first-person lost-love songs don’t pop up much lately in Swift’s catalog, for obvious reasons of apparent romantic contentment. You do get a few that veer in that direction among “Midnight’s” 13 tracks, starting with “Maroon” and “Bejeweled,” which could actually be more just about lulls in a relationship than anything truly tragic. But as anyone who’s followed Swift’s albums from “Reputation” forward knows, it’s not boys prompting tears on her guitar that provide the grist for her greatest adversarial material anymore. And not so much Kanye, either; she really does seem to have forgotten he existed, as she playfully declared at the outset of the “Lover” album. (There are a lot of folks right about now wishing they had that ability, too.) But the buying and selling of her Big Machine catalog — that burr in her saddle may be fueling songs till she’s feeling 82.
Not much of “Midnights” is devoted to her fieriness about business matters, but the couple of songs that we can at least imagine might have bee, are doozies. “Vigilante Shit” lives up to its promising title, with Antonoff reducing the musical bed to its barest, suspenseful, deep-bass minimum as Swift sings in solidarity with the newly divorced wife of someone who did her wrong. This could be pure speculative fiction, or wish-fulfillment fantasy, that the singer is imagining herself as responsible for the marital split of a nemesis. The idea that Swift might really have provided a dossier of wrongdoing to the ex-wife of one of her nemeses would seem to beggar belief. Fantasy or no, it does seem like a direct sequel to “Mad Woman,” in which she previously addressed the wife of an enemy with the threat of revealed peccadilloes. Needless to say, “Vigilante Shit” will be the album’s most talked-about song.
“Karma” takes a more comic approach to wrongs being made right, with the narrator assuming the universe can take care of things in lieu of any personal sabotage. It’s LOL-funny: “Karma’s a relaxing thought / Aren’t you envious that for you it’s not? / Sweet like honey / Karma is a cat / Purring in my lap ‘cause it loves me / Flexing like a goddamn acrobat / Me and karma vibe like that.” As for who she’s thinking of, the suspect may be the comrade-turned-archenemy who sold off her label, given fairly transparent lines about how “my pennies made your crown… Don’t you know that cash ain’t the only price?” she tells a figure identified only as “Spiderboy.” Sounwave returns to lend some magic on the album’s most unusual and sonically transfixing track, which has a martial rhythm fit for a runway strut, even as the tune faintly sounds like it’s taking place in some sort of funky underwater kingdom.
Even when Swift is giving a noogie to an archenemy in “Karma,” romance enters into it, unlikely as that may sound. One of the climactic lines is, “Karma is the guy on the screen coming straight home to me,” which it doesn’t take much flexing to imagine is a brag about her movie-star boyfriend of (now) a half-decade’s standing. His presence is a part of plenty of the album’s more earnest songs, too, of course — not just the aforementioned bookends but, as promised in her many TikTok mini-promos, “Snow on the Beach.” That ballad has the extra lure of Lana Del Rey as a co-writer and guest vocalist, although their voices blend as one so effectively, it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, aside from a couple of lyrics that sound distinctly Lana-esque. Like, the feeling of unlikely love and unlikelier precipitation patterns as “weird but fuckin’ beautiful,” which sounds a lot like Ms. Del Rey, no matter how much Swift proves capable of wielding the F-word without help throughout other songs on the album. (Which of these two devised the shout-out to Janet Jackson? Let discerning fans debate.)
“Snow” is one of a minority of songs that could have felt equally at home on “Folklore” or “Evermore” as this, with the sound of a plucked-string section at the end, even if the credits tell us there was no such orchestration. You may hear echoes of “Illicit Affairs” or “All You Had to Do Was Stay” in how Swift has the instinct to make what could be a standard-issue melody less monotonous by raising her voice an octave just for the last syllable of each line, in spots — something she also does in the tune “Midnight Rain.” Sometimes you don’t want to look too closely at how the magician does her tricks, but it’s worth tracing the many ways Swift has of making her songs feel subliminally unpredictable, whether it’s that one or her knack for sticking little lyrical changes in nearly every repeated chorus.
The ’60s/’70s family-room decor of the various album covers had some fans wondering if maybe that aesthetic would be reflected in the music itself. It’s not, except to the extent that Antonoff really, really loves his analog synths, which indeed date back to the late ’70s and even late ’60s. But the Moog-iness and Mellotron-ness of it all are just retro-future flourishes, when he and Swift are also going after up-to-the-moment trap beats. The music isn’t always as altogether synthetic as it usually seems, with plenty of “organic” instrumentation listed in the credits that isn’t often primary in the mix. The throbbing electro-poppiness of it works, of course, as a bed for vocals that are unmistakably human (except when she’s electronically androgyn-izing her voice for strange pieces of the centerpiece “Midnight Rain”). That said, there are two highlights where programming takes a time out: “You’re on Your Own Kid,” a look back at a lonely childhood and agreeably self-sufficient adulthood, which relies mostly on a strummed electric guitar, and the tender, penultimate “Sweet Nothing,” which mostly sticks to a nostalgic electric piano before a few sweet horn stings kick in toward the end.
“Midnights” doesn’t venture as far into other fields as some of her more openly ambitious albums have. This seems like a feature, not a flaw, even if “Folklore” and “Evermore” still feel like her masterpieces to date. The new album benefits from its relative modesty, length-wise and streamlining-wise; sans any deluxe bonus tracks, it tops out at a hair under 45 minutes, versus the sprawl of albums like those and “Lover” before it, which lasted past the hour point and had to be spread over two LPs apiece in the vinyl format. There are no songs about mothers or grandmothers or historic mansion-owners here; no truly high-concept Chicks or Panic! or Future features; no life-and-death lyrical scenarios or indulgences in off-brand genres — not that she wasn’t masterful at taking on all that. And not that Swift shouldn’t do sprawling magnum opuses again, or go back to Dessner all the time, when she’s good and ready for those gothic woods again. (Maybe next pandemic.)
But Antonoff is great for her here, as her sole or primary go-to for collaborative needs on every vibey track. With the consistency of that partnership across all 13 songs (and this is the first time in a while she’s kept the track count down to that lucky number), she’s able to maintain a tighter focus on alternately dark and light nights of the soul, in matters of love, redemption and minor vengeance. And that paring down doesn’t hurt when, in the 2022 Swiftie format of choice, you only have to flip the side over once.
Worth noting is that “Midnights” marks her 10th grand slam in a row (not counting re-recordings), a record you’d be hard-pressed to find matched among the singer-songwriter greats that influenced or otherwise came before her, almost any one of whom had their duds by this point. The rest of the charting music sphere isn’t often rising to the same occasion, to the point that you’re often thinking this is anything like pop’s golden age. But the arrival of each new Swift album as a bona fide musical event can lull you into thinking we’re living in the good old days, or nights, after all.
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