Photo Credit: Beth Garrabrant (All Photos)
Taylor Swift’s re-recordings have, so far, been largely successful – beyond achieving their central aim of giving Swift back control of the masters of her first six albums, they’ve earned her another No.1 with “All Too Well,” as well as jumpstarting an overdue critical re-evaluation of her earliest works. Yet they’ve hinted at a few problems too – as I mentioned in my review of her Red re-recording in November of last year, she struggled to recreate the charm of that album’s peppiest big hits (“I Knew You Were Trouble,” “22,” “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). As I wrote at the time, these missteps “raise concerns about how Swift will manage to maintain the original charm of 1989 when it comes time to re-record that album.” Of course, it also raised concerns about how successful a reversion to pop music would be on a new future album. We now have Midnights to answer those concerns.
Midnights is a mature, adult pop album and a very logical next step for Taylor. Amidst a career of endless left-turns that have kept even the most keen-eyed fans on their toes, Midnights represents a natural progression for Swift – combining the restraint of Folklore/Evermore with the shimmer of Lover and 1989 and includes brief, sharp rehashes of the themes and sounds of 2017’s Reputation. Swift’s tenth LP is far from bad – and unlike her past pop albums has no excruciating low points like “Me!” or “Look What You Made Me Do” – but if it was meant to combine the best parts of her past work to create a definitive masterpiece, it instead more closely resembles a mushy, immemorable compromise between competing tendencies.
Much of this is to do with the sound of the album. Jack Antonoff – who produced the entirety of the standard edition – may be responsible for some of the 2010s greatest pop masterpieces (Norman F*cking Rockwell, Melodrama), but in this decade, he is better known for creating that which is safe and tasteful, rather than innovative and daring (see: Lorde’s Solar Power and, to a lesser extent, Lana Del Rey’s Chemtrails Over The Country Club). Unsurprisingly then, Midnights sees oft-captivating story-telling submerged into an unremarkable sonic palette.
Excluding her 2020 quarantine projects, Taylor Swift has never produced a lead single that sounds less like a hit than she has with “Anti-Hero” – a song that with more oomph would be a compelling, if self-pitying, examination of feeling inadequate. The much-hyped Lana Del Rey collaboration “Snow On The Beach,” meanwhile, ends up being a drab, by-the-numbers ballad where the Born To Die singer is relegated to backing vocals. The entirety of the Midnight’s standard edition feels insomnia-inducing; even after 4-5 full listens, I was unable to recall a single melody or refrain from the album.
But part of Midnights problems lie with Swift’s lyricism, which is plagued by the sort of awkwardness that shouldn’t be as big of a surprise as it is, given Reputation and Lover. The opener “Lavender Haze” tries to capture the ecstasy of love but finds Swift too caught up in what other people have to say – exemplified best in a misplaced reference to internet virality. Even though “Karma” is catchier than a great deal of Midnights, it’s hard to look past declarations that “Karma is my boyfriend…Karma is a cat // Purring in my lap.” The best songwriting from Swift comes when she writes of her own heartbreak while the pain is still searing, or when she explores stories from the outside that she is genuinely captivated by (See: Folklore and Evermore). On Midnights, Swift can often seem uninterested in the stories she has to tell.
The opening lines of “Question…” (“Good girl, sad boy // Big city, wrong choices”) feel reductive, almost like a parody of a Taylor Swift lyric – exploring her favorite themes in the most basic, descriptive way possible. Elsewhere, Swift is unable to deliver the requisite passion for Midnight’s break-up songs – perhaps because, by all accounts, she is now writing as someone in a well-deserved, happy, long-term relationship. “Vigilante Sh*t,” while fun, is perhaps the most telling example of how impersonal and inauthentic Midnights feels at its worst – as she declares “I don’t start shit, but I can tell you how it ends,” with none of the vocal bites that defined Reputation’s fleeting great moments.
When Swift sings from a place of honesty, the results can be stunning. “Sweet Nothing” is the standard edition’s most evocative song, as Swift contrasts the chaos of the outside world with the bliss of requited love. “‘Cause they said the end is coming // Everybody’s up to something // I find myself running home to your sweet nothings,’” she croons affectingly. “You’re On Your Own, Kid” meanwhile, is a testament to the unparalleled power of Swift’s songwriting at its best, as she paints a detailed portrait of an adolescent chasing an uninterested love interest. She turns the titular phrase from something isolating to something strangely reassuring – a reminder of our innate ability to hold ourselves up without needing anybody’s assistance.
Ever the prolific writer, Swift couldn’t help but drop an additional seven songs just 3 hours after the release of the standard edition of Midnights. This has, understandably, raised yet more ethical questions about Swift’s ruthless sales promotion strategies – after imploring fans to buy four $30+ vinyl copies of her new album to make a clock, she suddenly announces a new set of tracks not available on said vinyl.
However, these seven tracks – while uneven in quality – do have the advantage of adding new dimensions to Midnights. Seeing Swift reunite with her most fruitful collaborator to date – The National’s Aaron Dessner – the “3 AM” edition of Swift’s newest LP includes two of her best songs to date. Speculated to be about John Mayer, “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” is a truly haunting examination of a toxic youthful relationship with an older man that, like Demi Lovato’s similarly fantastic “29,” uses the wisdom of being older in aide of surgical precision in dissecting predatory behavior. It’s filled with morbid, religious imagery that underlines the intensity of being a 19-year-old dating a 32–year-old in the public eye, but its most staggering moments come during the bluntest confessionals – “And now that I know, I wish you’d left me wondering,” Swift sings during the album’s most show-stopping moment.
The similarly fantastic “Bigger Than The Whole Sky” is Midnight’s big tear-jerker – up there with “Ronan” in terms of emotional heaviness. Seemingly about a miscarriage, it sees Swift alternate between beautiful poetry and straightforward confessionals. “Every single thing I touch becomes sick with sadness // Cause it’s all over now,” she declares during the album’s saddest moment. “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye // You were bigger than the whole sky // You were more than just a short time,” she sings for a heart-wrenching send-off in the chorus. The rest of the song is filled with unanswered questions – whether the tragedy was due to a lack of prayer, or if it was part of some grand, Godly plan – as Swift pines over what “Could’ve been, would’ve been // What should’ve been you.” It’s a staggering piece of songwriting that confirms Swift is as capable a songwriter as ever, even if it only comes through in spurts and starts on Midnights.