With its confident songwriting and understated synth-pop, Swift’s sophisticated tenth album suggests she no longer feels like she has to compete with her peers.
It’s one of the strangest aspects of 21st-century pop that every major new album feels like a puzzle to be solved. Nothing is ever just announced, promoted and then released. Instead, breadcrumbs of cryptic hints and visual clues are released very gradually through the artist’s social media channels. Fans are drooling over them and formulating exciting theories about what will happen. The articles are written by collecting theories from said fans and weighing their potential veracity. Sometimes it takes longer for the actual album to stay on the charts. It certainly did with Taylor Swift’s 10th studio album Midnights. Everything has been scrutinized for potential information about its contents, including the kind of eyeshadow she wears on the album cover. Conspiracy theories abounded. Exploring them here makes space impossible, as does concern for your well-being: reading about them gives you a bit of a headache.
Still, it’s perhaps inevitable that people are curious about Swift’s next move. In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about the willingness of big stars to give their fans more of the same: building an instantly recognizable brand in a world where tens of thousands of new songs are added to streaming services every day. It’s an approach that Midnights guest Lana Del Rey knows a lot about, but not one that Swift stuck to. Instead, she kept turning: from Nashville to New York, pedal steel guitars to fizzing synths, Springsteen-style rock to dubstep-filled pop. The last time she broke open with new material, she released Folklore and Evermore, two pandemic-fueled albums of tasteful folk-rock produced by National’s Aaron Dessner. But that is no guarantee of her future direction.
In fact, Midnights brings her firmly back to electronic pop from what she called the “folk woods” of her last two albums. Midnight Rain and Labyrinth feature filtered synth tones, dubstep-influenced bass surges, trap and house-inspired beats and effects that distort her voice to the point of androgyny, a major choice given the preponderance of lyrics protesting gender stereotypes. , or “the 50s shit they want from me,” as Lavender Haze says. Likewise, something of Folklore and Evermore’s understated nature hangs around Midnights. It’s an album that steadfastly refuses to settle for the kind of neon bangers that pop stars usually come back with, music bold enough to cut through the noise. The sound is hazy, atmospheric and tastefully muted.
On the brilliant Maroon, Swift’s voice is backed by ambient electronics and strumming shoegazey guitars: it’s one of the few songs where you feel like it might suddenly devolve into an epic chorus or coda, but it never does. The Del Rey collaboration Snow on the Beach is beautifully done – a perfect fusion of genes between their two musical styles with a beautiful melody – but it’s far from a grand summit between the two pop icons: there’s a remarkable lightness of touch, a restrained melding of their voices. Anti-Hero, meanwhile, offers a litany of small-time self-pity to music not dissimilar to the glossy ’80s rock of Swift’s 1989 , but with a muted brightness. There’s an appealing confidence in this approach, a sense that Swift no longer feels like she has to compete on a level playing field with her peers.
Elsewhere, if the Swift you love is Swift in vengeful mode, she’s dealing with a side order of You’re So Vain-esque who-is-it? intrigue, fast-forward to Vigilante Shit and Karma is recommended: the former contains verses that could be directed at her old enemies Kanye West or Scooter Braun; the other slanders someone called “spiderboy”, noting how they “weave your little webs of opacity, my pennies made your crown”. But Vigilante Shit’s sound is minimal and unflinching – the beat, with thin slivers of bass and electronic tones that slide in and out of the mix, isn’t too far off from something Billie Eilish might have concocted on her debut album, while Karma is kaleidoscopically tuned, the next track reminds of the year 1989: there’s none of the distorted electronic fury that characterized 2017’s supremely angry reputation. The effect makes Swift’s anger less fragile, lending it a cold, dish-like mood.
This trust is the thing that binds the midnights together. Swift’s songwriting is assured, full of subtle, brilliant touches: the moment on Question…?, where, describing a drunken conversation, the lyrics simultaneously pick up the beat and stop rhyming; You’re on Your Own, Kid’s fantastic account of the now-famous Swift returning to her hometown feeling like a prom queen, albeit a very specific prom queen: “I looked around in a blood-soaked dress,” she sings, image conjuring Sissy Spacek about to mail to Carrie. It’s an album that’s cool, collected and mature. It’s also packed with fantastic songs and slightly removed from everything else going on in the upper echelons of pop right now. As always, you wouldn’t want to predict what Taylor Swift will do next, but what she’s doing at the moment is really, really good.