Consciously or not, Taylor Swift has always been pop artist. No matter whether the song is tingling with teenage emotion and country jangle like Fearless, glazed with the 80s sheen of 1989, or crystallised in pristine chamber folk as on Folklore, underneath the surface is an effortless talent for melody and shamelessly pop sensibilities.
After 2020’s double dosage of intricate indie folk on Folklore and Evermore and a dalliance with her country roots on her re-recordings of Fearless and Red last year, Swift plunges back into outright pop with her tenth studio album Midnights. Documenting a series of sleepless nights and nocturnal musings, the album is slick with deep, thrumming synths and metallic vocals. Produced by Swift’s long-time collaborator Jack Antonoff, it refines the highly-processed pop on 2017’s Reputation and 2019’s Lover.
But Midnights finds itself on a much more even keel than these patchy albums. It doesn’t sink to the lows of ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ or ‘You Need to Calm Down’ but nor is it elevated by anything approaching the exhilaration of ‘Getaway Car’ or ‘Cruel Summer’. Instead, Swift relies on atmosphere and cohesion to carry the album, compromising her own trademark knack for endlessly enjoyable pop melodies.
It’s three tracks in before we get our first full-bodied pop tune. The misty, undulating opener ‘Lavender Haze’ and the flat, grimy drone of ‘Maroon’, greatly indebted to Lorde’s Pure Heroine, set the gloomy tone perfectly, but are instantly cast into shadow by the dazzlingly infectious single ‘Anti-Hero’.
This vibrant anthem of self-loathing is like a cynical answer to 2019’s ‘ME!’, declaring, ‘it’s me, hi! I’m the problem, it’s me.’ But the lyrics are surprisingly inconsistent for Swift, with striking poetry such as ‘when my depression works the graveyard shift, all of the people / I’ve ghosted stand there in the room’ juxtaposed with perplexingly awful lines like ‘sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby / and I’m a monster on the hill.’
‘Bejeweled’ and ‘Karma’ are similarly catchy. Sparkling and fizzing excitedly with a buoyant, childlike energy, they walk the same fine line between joyous and irritating as 2019’s ‘London Boy’ or ‘I Think He Knows’. Elsewhere, songs simply pale in comparison to their predecessors. The ‘Out of the Woods’ sample on ‘Question…?’ just serves as a reminder of how much harder the 2014 song hits, while ‘Midnight Rain’’s falsetto emphasis on each line’s last syllable makes for a hollow echo of ‘All You Had to Do Was Stay’.
Across the record, heavy production glosses over half-baked ideas. The Billie Eilish-esque ‘Vigilante Shit’, for example, is really composed of just two or three motifs repeated ad nauseum over a foreboding beat. The radiant haze of ‘Labyrinth’ is far stronger but misses out on a truly spectacular climax for the sake of a final chorus delivered through a watery vocoder.
It’s when light is allowed to shine through the chinks in this armour of synths and vocal effects that the album produces its starkest and most emotive moments. ‘Snow on the Beach’, paints a tableau of perfect stillness, sprinkled with soft orchestration and brushed with the delicate backing vocals of Lana Del Rey. This leads into the subtle, rippling rock of ‘You’re on Your Own, Kid’, whose understated and nostalgic sonic palette play to Antonoff’s strengths as a producer. Without the heavy vocal production, Swift’s voice is left vulnerable, carrying far more emotional weight as she launches into one of her signature climactic bridges.
Penultimate track ‘Sweet Nothing’ is just as intimate, electric piano and distant horns embellishing Swift’s touching lyrics: ‘Outside, they’re push and shovin’, / you’re in the kitchen hummin’. / All that you ever wanted from me was sweet nothin’.’ If Midnights is comparable to Reputation, ‘Sweet Nothing’ is its ‘New Year’s Day’: a poignant lullaby at the end of a tumultuous journey.
And Swift concludes the album with a restrained but momentous final act. As cathartic as it is endearing, ‘Mastermind’ might just be her best closing track since Red’s ‘Begin Again’.
But generous and prolific as ever, she has already released Midnights (3am Edition) containing seven extra tracks, which, like the core track list itself, fluctuate wildly in quality. There’s the fun but recycled ‘Paris’ and the aimless ‘Dear Reader’, but also the bombastic belter ‘Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve’, arguably the record’s most exciting cut overall.
Midnights is far from Swift’s best work, but, rather than revealing an artist running out of ideas, it shows the realisation of a bold artistic vision that only partially pays off. Tracks like ‘You’re on Your Own, Kid’, ‘Mastermind’ and ‘Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve’ show what the album could have looked like with the substance to back up the ambitious aesthetic.
One of the great things about Swift is she never stays still for long, so if this wasn’t your cup of tea, you can look forward to whatever her next project will bring. But no matter the mood, the instrumentation or the lyrical themes, she can always be counted on to deliver at least a few cracking pop songs, and Midnights proves no exception.