When Taylor Swift surprise announced a forthcoming new album in her winning VMAs speech in August, a delight and excitement gripped the internet with a purity and intensity that hadn’t felt possible in a while. The album image of Swift staring blasé at a lighter flame with her back against a white wall summoned back the chill glamour of the Tumblr aesthetic, of Vampire Weekend, or American Apparel and Helvetica. It was a reminder of “Taylor Swift” in her most archetypal form – modern yet retro, fearlessly confessional, totally resonant.
The concept of ‘Midnights’ is irresistible. After chameleoning across every possible character arc from breakout country star to millennial pop-convert, from woman scorned to recluse in the woods, Taylor Swift does on ‘Midnights’ the thing she has always done best – step into a new artistic persona whilst always staying familiar. Swift is a known insomniac, having interlaced “midnight” and “2 A.M.” timestamps throughout her music that have, by now, become canonical. The album title is a nod to this love affair with the sleepless night. Swift leans into the sensuality of the after-hours on ‘Midnights’, building out a sultry, fatalistic world of deep, rolling synths and full-bodied electro-pop with producer Jack Antonoff. It’s a silver, shimmery album that still feels warm, intimate and inviting, wrapped in the cool romance of velvet, maroon and midnight blue.
Swift’s interrogation of her own fame is one of the most meaningful and grounding aspects of the album; it may be the most vulnerable she has ever been about the subject in her songwriting. Stormy opener ‘Lavender Haze’ captures her attempts to build a private relationship and protect it from the world outside (“I’ve been under scrutiny / You handle it beautifully”), whilst ‘Anti-Hero’ is a dispatch from Taylor Swift “the famous person”, a rare glimpse into how she feels inhabiting the full bigness of her public persona. “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby / And I’m a monster on the hill”, she sings over a jaunting melody, “Too big to hang out / Slowly lurching towards your favourite city / Pierced through the heart but never killed.”
Lyrically, the album is similar to ‘Lover’ in that its strong and confident songwriting performance is, at times, undermined by awkward and unwieldy wording (think ‘London Boy’ and ‘ME!). ‘Vigilante Shit’ is the prime culprit for this, serving up teeth-grinding lines like “I don’t dress for women / I don’t dress for men / Lately I’ve been dressing for revenge”, and “While he was doing lines and crossing all of mine / Someone told his white collar crimes to the FBI”.
‘Midnights’ also shares with ‘Lover’ and ‘Reputation’ a sometimes forgettable midsection – tracks ‘Midnight Rain’, ‘Bejeweled’, ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘Karma’ blur together, and ‘Snow on the Beach’, Swift’s wintry duet with Lana Del Rey, is a slight letdown. Del Rey’s presence on the track is barely felt, and she seems to have been enlisted mainly for back-up on harmonies.
Still, ‘Maroon’ and ‘Sweet Nothing’ help to redeem the album. ‘Maroon’ sees Swift revisit the painting-in-colour exercise of 2012’s ‘Red’, now as a grown-up, to beautiful and gratifying effect (“The burgundy on my T-shirt when you splashed your wine on me… The mark they saw on my collarbone / The rust that grew between telephones”). ‘Sweet Nothing’, co-written with boyfriend Joe Alwyn, sounds like the warmth of a nightlight on a cold winter, enveloping us in a simple cocoon of lived-in intimacy that somehow feels more real than the bombastic romance of the album’s big “Love Songs”.
The highlight of the album is ‘You’re On Your Own Kid’, where we meet Swift at the absolute pinnacle of her songwriting and pop powers. We get everything we could want from Swift: on the first verse, a hark back to her country roots in recollections of young summers and adolescent want (“Summer went away / Still the yearning stays”), and in the chorus, party scenes marked by an earth-shattering realisation on the dance floor that all she wants is for the person she loves to love her back (“I search the party of better bodies / Just to learn that you never cared”). Finally, Swift gives over the goods – a classic, singular Swiftian bridge delivered with a frantic, electrifying energy that fills your whole body: “I hosted parties and starved my body / Like I’d be saved by a perfect kiss… I looked around in a blood-soaked gown… Everything you lose is a step you take.”
This is an album about many things – love, revenge, loneliness – but as Swift writes in her album announcement, all we can do is hope that after all the tossing and turning, “we’ll meet ourselves”. Her tenth album over her 16-year career, ‘Midnights’ proves that Swift is, like us, still out searching with the lanterns lit, singing and dancing along the way towards finding herself.