Taylor Swift is sick of reinventing herself. Her 10th studio album, Midnights, signifies her return to pop, but with a wine-stained, eleventh-hour clarity in both production and lyricism. She released seven bonus tracks on a special “3am version”, but for the purpose of this review and the presentation of Midnights as a concept album, I’m sticking to the original 13 tracks.
Midnights excels when Swift puts her public persona under the microscope. In more direct songs such as “Anti-Hero”, Swift muses, “I have this dream my daughter-in-law kills me for the money / She thinks I left her in the will.” It’s bleak and confessional, but you get the sense that Swift thinks she deserved it somehow. For her, these are simply the consequences of meteoric fame. She shows off deep insecurities with a clever wink at the audience, and crafts a catchy pop song out of self-loathing. Similar themes, yet painted in darker hues, arise on “You’re On Your Own, Kid”, a stellar Track 5 in which Swift reminisces on the alienation that accompanies stratospheric success. The pulsing synth creates a feeling of unrelenting dissolution, of frantically looking for meaning but finding none. Swift reduces the bridge, normally a soaring hallmark of her songwriting, to a more intensified verse. She ruminates, “I gave my blood sweat and tears for this / I hosted parties and starved my body like I’d be saved by the perfect kiss”. Unlike on Lover and folklore, where insight softened deep gashes, (“I Forgot That You Existed”, “the 1”), time only made her realize the extent to which she’s been wronged by the public eye, and the downsides to her childish optimism.
But love and the pressures of fame don’t always have to be bleak. On tracks such as “Lavender Haze”, she slings out lines such as, “No deal, that 1950’s shit they want from me” and “The only kind of girl they see / Is a one-night or a wife” to a slinky beat, courtesy of Sounwave (co-producer with The Weeknd) and Jahaan Sweet (known for his work with The Carters, Drake, etc). It’s a much more nuanced take on feminist themes than the girlboss attitudes of “The Man” and “mad woman”. In “Karma”, another earworm, Swift teases, “karma is my boyfriend / karma is a god”. The breezy track describes feeling at peace in her life, and fulfilled with her happiness, as opposed to an attachment to the “boyfriend” stereotype which the public expects.
Make no mistake: as Swift has re-enters the pop sphere, she still hangs on to the verbose lyricism of folklore and evermore. In her confessional tone, “Machiavellian” and “soul-deconstructors/smooth-talking hucksters” somehow sound like instinctive pop song lyrics. The filmy sounds of “Snow on The Beach” and “Sweet Nothing” are a welcome interlude between the alt-pop, although the former could have greatly benefited from Lana del Rey on a verse as opposed to relegated in the background of the mix. Upon first listen on the floor of my sorority house, my friends and I loved “Vigilante Shit”, a venomous and playful mix of pared-down stadium pop and complex revenge storytelling.
In terms of production, the album borrows the synth-heavy pop of Reputation and Lover to varying degrees of success. Tracks such as “Labyrinth”, “Maroon”, “Question…?”, “Midnight Rain” and “Mastermind” contain deft songwriting, but all five consist of a beating, intriguing verse that wants to expand into a classic explosive Swift chorus. Instead, Swift and Antonoff pull back, and let the chorus plateau into a more reflective, subdued pop track that, in another world, could be a B-Side from The 1975. The problem is, there’s simply too many of these quieter songs, and I wish they had been crafted into either a ballad or a pop song.
However, I’m pleasantly curious to see Swift enter this era of experimentation, even if her trademark scream-able bridges get lost in space and 808s every now and then. This new melancholy pop has maybe been done a little more successfully by some of her peers: Lorde’s Melodrama immediately comes to mind, but also St Vincent’s Masseduction, Maggie Rogers’ recent cut Surrender, or even Jubilee by Japanese Breakfast. Nevertheless, Midnights is the most cohesive album in Swift’s discography. Perhaps in the process of re-recording her old masters, she’s realized that hairpin-turn genre switches are unnecessary to keep her work in the limelight. Swift’s x-factor has always been her songwriting, and here, as in folklore, tracks are rendered in a lavender haze rather than a blinding purple. Call that what you want.
Violet Gooding is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].