Don’t believe, certainly don’t trust, anyone who tells you that Midnights is Taylor Swift, who has spent time recently rerecording her early career reshaping albums, Fearless and Red, returning to pop/giving up on the Americana that loosely defined her two lockdown albums of 2020, or some variation of this line. Just as you shouldn’t trust anyone who tried to argue that those lockdown albums, Folklore and Evermore, were disconnected from their immediate predecessors, 2019’s Lover and 2017’s Reputation.
Like her or not, throughout the clear stylistic changes we have seen since 2006, Swift has never been one for rapid or disorienting switches, even as she reshaped our expectations and reactions. Each iteration of her, from country ingénue to outright pop star to interior songwriter to whatever category we will attach to her now, has grown out of its predecessors, or at least been signposted there, when seen in retrospect.
This is not unusual of course – that’s how most artists who control their art have always worked – but when you’re young and female, and you are bought principally by the young and female, it is a much easier narrative to be spoken about in absolutes and switchbacks, with the attendant cynicism about how and why changes have been made.
(And let’s be fair here, Swift, who made so much of being part of the sisterhood around 1989, when mostly it seemed as if she had built an entourage, not a posse, is not without reason for cynicism at different times.)
Midnights – with long-time collaborator Jack Antonoff more prominent in his assistance in the absence of Folklore/Evermore cowriter and producer Bryce Dessner – takes in more electronic rhythm tracks and synthesisers, feels less sonically enclosed, and tilts more to first-person (personal?) narratives than 2020’s double.
The shine around her voice in a song like Lavender Haze, the tinny boxbeat of Bejeweled and the mid-‘80s rhythm track of Anti-Hero position her in pop more than, say folk/alt. rock. A track like Karma can spend its three minutes and 24 seconds of R&B-flavoured pop adding thin layers of sound with the promise of something blowing up eventually, and while it stays dancing under a slow-moving mirror ball, it is at least dancing. Midnight Rain, with ricocheting machine beats similarly pitches up in a space that looks a lot more like the VIP anteroom to a nightclub than some whiskey bar.
No more The National, let’s get (back to being) international!
Except that the overall tenor of the record is not that much different to that on the Dessner duo. If those albums were made under the cloud of lockdown, this album is self-described as reflecting 13 dark nights of the soul which prompted at least introspection and reflection at different points in her life. These are songs whose exuberance might be occluded, whose intention is not some bright resolution but something much more ambiguous.
A friend of mine who has found diminishing pleasure since 1989 asked, after listening to this record over the weekend, where is the fun? My response that fun came in many guises – for example, sometimes a really well-done song is fun too – quite reasonably did not mollify her at all.
And can see why with Vigilante Shit, a constantly percolating mood-limiter which suggests someone who has heard Lana del Rey and The Weeknd but prefers Billie Eilish, while Snow On The Beach actually features Del Ray with Swift, and somehow imagines the pair as some kind of neo-Clannad. And Maroon, a one hand on chest, one hand reaching out ballad, controls itself to the potential for letting go, much as it confines itself to bitter barbs rather than a full lacerating.
Two of these are among the best tracks on the album (the other, Snow On The Beach, is rather pallid), but no one’s going to confuse them with fun pop. They are also pretty typical for the album, which suggests a limitation here may be this similarity of tone, this absorption in late-night intensity, a circumstance that is not generally given to unabashed “fun”.
Lyrically this is made even clearer with dreams of family betrayals and memories of past emotional and romantic travails having more impact than the positive – dare we say, happy – current, “daytime” relationship. There’s the familiar Swiftian pointed commentary too, occasionally self-inflicted but are often piercing deeper than skin in their intended targets. Or maybe both in the case in the sharp “Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism/Like some kind of congressman”.
So, no, Midnights is not a retreat to familiar grounds, nor a repudiation of anything since. Is it as good as those which preceded it? I don’t think so: it’s no free-flying 1989, obviously, nor does it pack the oomph of Lover, Folklore and Evermore. But it’s no mere placemarker either.
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