Ten albums in, Taylor Swift knows her job as an artist and songwriter. On her new studio album, she seems to have a keener understanding of it than ever before. Midnights features deft lyricism and a rhythmic cadence, eschewing simple verse formats for her deepest dive yet into celebrity vulnerability.
Midnights autobiographically chronicles 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout Swift’s life. There are frequent recalls to her earlier discography in the part-concept, part-bildungsroman album. Opener “Lavender Haze” signals Swift’s return to big-studio pop with a tight ship of songwriters and producers (including long-time collaborator Jack Antonoff and friend Zoë Kravitz), pounding sub-bass, autotune and a glitched vocal loop. The R'n'B-inspired treatment strays from her pandemic albums, the stripped-down folklore and evermore (both 2020). What is retained from those surprise releases is her inward probing, expressed eloquently on tracks such as on “Snow on the Beach” (Saw flecks .. passing by unbeknownst to me) and on “Sweet Nothing”, where she talks about “industry disruptors and soul deconstructors. And smooth-talking hucksters''.
On the synth pop track “You’re On Your Own, Kid”, the 11-time Grammy winner journeys from her early starlet years to fulfilling her popstar ambitions in her 1989 era, “just to learn that my dreams aren’t rare”. Lead single “Anti-Hero” premiered with a witty music video—a giant Swift trampling around—the lyrics simultaneously playful (Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby) while acknowledging the complexity of being a heart-on-the-sleeve songwriter (Did you hear my covert narcissism/I disguise as altruism). Swift’s vocals are assured throughout, from sensuous alt-pop swerves on standout tracks “Vigilante Shit” and “Karma” to the frenzied rhyming schemes on “Maroon” and “Bejeweled”, where her stealthy employment of brimming sentences tapered to hip-hop kick drums and snappy hooks stands out.
The only guest feature on the album comes from sad indie’s poster girl Lana Del Rey, who contributes inconspicuous, woozy backing vocals for a dreamy duet sans any solo verse. The most gratifying songs on Midnights are the ones credited to a team of collaborators (“Karma”, “Lavender Haze”, bonus track “Glitch”) other than the primary producer Jack Antonoff, bringing back Swift’s effortless hit-making energy reminiscent of her music pre-Antonoff. Antonoff’s trademark slithering synths and airy ‘80s drums have sunk their way into Clairo, Lorde, Lana Del Rey and Carly Rae Jepsen’s music, leaving the pop landscape marked with his ubiquitous touch. But this now-familiar template means the segments of Midnights he collaborates on lack experimentation, begging the question if Antonoff is too anchored in his style, and whether Swift is in need of a team reshuffle.
On “Labyrinth”, the steady swelling synth is a callback to “The Archer” (Lover, 2019), with an anxiety-inducing verse as Swift dwells on falling in love while being paranoid about happy endings. A lone beat gives way to a dizzying uptempo chorus for the strangely reaffirming love song that it is meant to be . “Midnight Rain” and “Question…?”, as well as three of the bonus tracks from the “Deluxe 3 AM” edition (“Bigger Than The whole sky”, “Paris”, “Dear Reader”), are lyrically and sonically similar to songs on 1989 (2014) and reputation (2017), with arrangements from the same cycles. All these tracks are produced solely in collaboration with Antonoff. The remaining bonus tracks written with indie-folk collaborator Aaron Dessner combine her pop stylings and Americana storytelling. A master of subverting traditional structures, she closes tracks with open ended-lines from the main hook (Karma is a relaxing thought…).
Swift has such a prolific and all-pervading presence in today’s pop culture that it’s easy to overlook her legacy as a musician. Midnights is a sexier, sparkier and more fun Swift than we’ve heard before—a proud pop parade from the 32-year-old songwriter.