Taylor Swift Is Her Own Timekeeper on 'Midnights'

BY Megan LaPierrePublished Oct 24, 2022

Nothing exists in a vacuum — least of all a Taylor Swift album. Perhaps more so than any other modern-day pop star, to be a critical consumer of Swift's music is to also be an archivist. The fervent expectations for her 10th studio album, Midnights, were likewise only informed by her past catalogue, without a single or even a snippet to go on ahead of the album's release at the stroke of midnight on October 21.

Personally, I hadn't even let myself get so far as to imagine how Swift would follow 2020's surprise twin offerings of folklore and evermore, foolishly assuming she'd continue to make her re-recording project the priority after 2021's Fearless (Taylor's Version) and Red (Taylor's Version). But of course an artist so prolific couldn't be content just working with old material; instead, she mined her memory for those wriggling souvenirs, tossed and turned out from 32 years of witching hours for what she described as "the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life."

She added, "Midnights is a collage of intensity, highs and lows and ebbs and flows," which I underscore here for the use of the word "intensity." On the album's premise alone, the act of laying awake in anguish or ecstasy is rich with emotional intensity. But, as it turns out, reflecting on that late-night state doesn't inherently mean you'll capture its potency of feeling. Instead, Midnights is a moody, mid-tempo collage — perhaps a holdover from folklore's understated storytelling approach — that drafts different elements of Swift's previous synthpop eras (1989, reputation and Lover) into a low-stakes haze.  

Swift and Jack Antonoff co-produced the album, with additional credits given to the latter's Red Hearse bandmate Sounwave and Jahaan Sweet, who've both previously been involved in Kendrick Lamar records, as well as Australian producer Keanu Beats. Among the co-writing credits, there are contributions from Zoë Kravitz and Swift's partner Joe Alwyn, appearing once again under his William Bowery pen name. The project came together when Alwyn and Margaret Qualley (Antonoff's partner) were on location in Panama shooting an arthouse film serendipitously called Stars at Noon. While their partners filmed, Swift and Antonoff hunkered down together in New York, reminiscing and recording on a nightly basis.

Though they've been working together for nearly a decade — Antonoff first appeared on 2014's 1989Midnights is Swift's first album featuring her longtime co-conspirator as sole main collaborator. Since helping Swift wade into synthpop bombast with "Out of the Woods," Antonoff has become inescapable in the world of pop music. However, after much initial excitement for his brand of '80s-indebted glitter-bomb production, there's been something of a downward trajectory in Antonoff's producorial output. In more recent years, he's produced some pretty good to kinda meh albums for a handful of great pop artists and songwriters, including Lorde, Clairo, St. Vincent and Lana Del Rey (who makes the sole credited guest appearance on Midnights in an inevitable collaboration that I'm surprised took this long). For all their literal lustre production-wise, these projects came off to many as lacklustre, signs that perhaps Antonoff's now-chameleonic production style was beginning to dampen his collaborators' songwriting instincts. 

As Swift sings on "Bejeweled," "familiarity breeds contempt." Midnights shows exactly why Antonoff's become such a divisive producer among a certain brand of pop fan and also reaffirms why these artists seem to trust him to help them articulate their creative visions. Antonoff's figured out how to smoothen and sanitize a soundscape that creates echoey, shellacked room for the words alone to deliver the punches — placing a lot of pressure on lyrical heavy-hitters. Since the artists he works with tend toward the strikingly memorable and wordy end of the pop spectrum, it's actually an understandable analysis of the producer's role in the studio. In the case of Midnights, it also leaves Swift's pen to make everything click. 

The writing on the album is an exercise in both subtlety and a serious lack thereof. With the blurry thump of Antonoff's party-next-door drum machines and synths (stuttering opener "Lavender Haze" being a prime example), the middling tempos across the 13 tracks of the album proper — we'll get to those bonus tracks — don't create a lot of high-intensity ebbing and flowing. Unlike on reputation and Lover, which incorporated more experimental, hip-hop-influenced electropop elements, there aren't incredibly high highs or incredibly low lows. Both of those albums are home to some unfortunate blemishes on Swift's sterling catalogue — her knack for choosing the wrong single is worthy of an entirely separate piece — so it must be acknowledged that "Anti-Hero" is the best lead single choice for a Taylor Swift album in ages. While it lacks the soaring chorus structures of precursory bangers like "Blank Space" and "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," it's easily one of the best-hitting tracks on Midnights. It's always so deliciously pleasurable to see Swift take aim at herself and the things critics and/or some guy have said, even when she needs to call everybody a "sexy baby" to do it. You can tell she also delights in it, revelling in the consonance of "Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism like some kind of congressman?"

Likewise, the slight breath held between "that's me" and "hi" in that chorus (undeniably the album's strongest hook) epitomizes the way space can be used to make the words to follow more satisfying. By the sheer function of Swift's typically bullet-proof song structuring, there are obvious moments where a given line is designated to be emphasized, and on Midnights, many of these don't quite make the mark. One such clunker is on "Vigilante Shit," where Swift sings, "Lately I've been dressing for revenge / I don't start shit, but I can tell you how it ends / Don't get sad, get even." The much-mythologized "Karma" also falls victim to lines that aren't quite as clever as Swift thinks they are (but we're learning to live with cringe, right?), like "Karma is a cat, purring in my lap 'cause it loves me / Flexing like a goddamn acrobat / Me and karma vibe like that." Gone are the days of the singer-songwriter who (originally) left half of the 10-minute version of "All Too Well" on the cutting room floor; she's laying it all out, raw and unedited.

That's not to say there aren't impactful lines on this album — it wouldn't be a Taylor Swift record if there weren't. The standout turns of phrase are often those that aren't highlighted by the production or song structure; they're slipped into the night, glints of light in the small hours that shape-shift with the shadows on the wall, if only for a moment. Take the overwrought foundational image of "Snow on the Beach" (featuring the album's least natural use of "fuck," the kind people will meme-ify for sounding as if she was just granted permission to swear). After being disappointed by LDR's placement as glorified background vocalist and the song's goofy main hook — is snow on the beach really that "weird but fucking beautiful?" — it's an image like "stars by the pocketful" that shimmers with that old Taylor magic. The song reveals itself in these moments, allowing you to take in the softly pulsing, string-kissed splendour. Elsewhere, on "Maroon," the scene is expertly set by the first verse's imagery of cleaning incense off a vinyl shelf, but the rest of the song stumbles in comparison. Until, that is, the bridge's heartbeat-skipping delivery of "I wake with your memory over me / That's a real fucking legacy." 

The track five tradition, wherein the most emotionally devastating song is placed fifth in the tracklist, is done well by highlight "You're on Your Own, Kid," which fittingly offers the clearest stained-glass window into the psyche of Swift's inner child. "I search the party of better bodies / Just to learn that my dreams aren't rare," she sings over a deceptively bright-eyed, skipping series of what Stereogum's Tom Breihan brilliantly described as "glimmer-bloop keyboards" that recall "Cornelia Street." "You're on Your Own, Kid" shows Swift in her purposeful element: acknowledging some very human hurt and speaking healing into existence for both herself and listeners, making them feel like she's speaking directly to and about their own experiences.

Another novel glimpse of the singer-songwriter, who clearly still has many layers to unfold and stories left to tell 10 albums into her career, is pulsating, Lite-Brite-bleeping closer "Mastermind." It's the first time Swift has dedicated a song to her infamous tendency to remain several (dozen) chess moves ahead of everyone else — including her dedicated, ravenously attentive fans and yes, even her partner — at all times. It's her final reminder to us that she does nothing by accident, which makes her decision to relegate some of the strongest new material (notably featuring Aaron Dessner) to the 3am Edition all the more head-scratching. With input from Bon Iver and the National's Bryce Dessner and Bryan Devendorf, "Would've, Could've, Should've" is a standout that stops you in your tracks more than anything on the 13-track version. Hark, is that a… guitar?! "Memories feel like weapons," Swift repeats over a groundswell of percussion, reclaiming her past: "Give me back my girlhood, it was mine first." Likewise, the other great Dessner co-write "High Infidelity" features organic beat contributions from Big Thief drummer James Krivchenia. 

Swift has always been one to overstuff the sausage, cramming as many words as possible into a line until it endearingly runs over into the next. On Midnights, her overwriting and Antonoff's notorious production style can bring out the worst in each other, resulting in a clash of awkward effect choices and lyrics that fall a little flat. Where the writing can be inconsistent, the tempos remain steady as Antonoff's hollow drum machine hits, with various synth whirrs and twinkling keys making up the album's predictable (yet not uninteresting!) landscape. It's an attempt by Swift to integrate the low-key indie approach of folklore and evermore into her over-the-top pop persona — her 2020s records have been marked by a level of emotionality that feels more measured and mature. Gone are the voice-breaking yelps and high-energy tempos — instead, Swift has settled into the warm lower range of her voice and reduced things to a stable thrum. She may be mining the past for cobalt-streaked golden moments of unrest, but she's not the same artist she was before the pandemic hit. It's apparent in the interplay of Midnights' subtlety (and lack thereof): Swift seems to be going through some artistic growing pains, and like much of life right now, it's both too much and not enough. 

And though it suffers from some cringeworthy wording and grating vocal effects, Midnights is anything but an oversimplification. It tends to idle on laid-back, vaguely clubby beats, but there's still a lot of narrative to pour over — though the swaying domestic bliss of lullaby "Sweet Nothing" is less prevalent than the "hollow-eyed in the hallway" wandering on "Maroon"; the night-shrouded tales are often more evocative than a direct dispatch from our foremost storyteller. Midnights is smudged blue eye-shadow after the carriage has turned back into a pumpkin; it's repeatedly lighting the ignition as a way to feel like there's a way out of an anxious mind, without ever actually following through on burning it all down. Swift doesn't stop the clock — she slows it down to linger in the dusky daze of her own devices, having overthought it all.

Midnights is a slow-burning journey through the labyrinth of Swift's history, groping around in the dim light for the way forward. Sometimes, in the hush of nightfall, catharsis comes quietly.

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