Despite the restless-slumber concept that drifts through its songs, a serene acceptance lurks beneath the singer’s 10th studio album.
By Marc Hirsh Updated October 21, 2022 at 06:00 PM EDT
For all of her gloss, gleam, careful Easter-egg teases, and oh-so-deliberately rendered musical concoctions, the first decade-plus of Taylor Swift‘s career was marked by a distinct chaos: the hormonal teen angst that formed her lyrical focus; the heady swirl of her rapid country and pop ascendancies (and the friction between the two); the gossip-rag aspect of her relationships and the way they found their way into her songs via blind items; the feuds (real or ginned-up) with the likes of Kanye West; her industry battles for control over her masters. In recent years, though, the singer has settled down and radiated a sense of calm, with two releases of wintry, burbling electro-folk (2020’s Grammy-winning Folklore and its companion, Evermore) and two reimagined albums (last year’s “Taylor’s Versions” of Fearless and Red) that reclaimed her past by recasting it as the present.
Midnights is her fifth album in three years, a pace practically unheard of in modern pop music. But just like its immediate predecessors, nothing about Midnights sounds rushed. Despite the restless-slumber concept that drifts through the songs, a serene acceptance lurks behind her fluttering eyelids. Swift’s brain might be sparking random memories — good and bad — in the twilight twinkle before sleep takes her, but she’s not agitated or unsettled by it, merely processing. It’s a warm murmur wrapped in a weighted blanket.
Midnights Taylor Swift 2022
| Credit: Beth Garrabrant
That’s the case even when Swift banks off themes she’s explored before. Opener “Lavender Haze” continues her obsession with other people’s obsession with her, but only as the thing that falls away as she loses herself in the swoon of love. She slips even more red-lip imagery into “Maroon” (though the lips in question aren’t hers for once). In the blank, spacey, and self-aware “Anti-Hero,” she turns the line “Hi, I’m the problem, it’s me” into a hook and casually imagines she’s not only dead but looking up from hell. (It’s funnier than it sounds.) “Midnight Rain” follows in a similar vein, a clear-eyed postmortem of a relationship delivered by someone who might not be built for one.
But that was the younger Swift. Most of Midnights is about quieting the noise in her head, and the music — co-produced and mostly co-written with longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff — drills down in that direction, employing textures used by the likes of the xx and Holly Humberstone: bedroom-beat intimacy, electronically enhanced vocal doubling, fluttery blips, and maximalist minimalism, all planted two inches deep in the listener’s skull. The sonic signature of the album may even be a little too consistent; the excellent, Goldfrapp-y “Karma” is arguably the biggest banger here purely because the extra snap in the snare gives the characteristically muted beat a touch more danceability than any of the tracks surrounding it.
Still, if the songs on Midnights aren’t her stickiest, it doesn’t much matter while they’re playing, given how effectively they generate a mood and paint their pictures. Some, like “Vigilante S—-,” offer not nightmares, exactly, but something certainly uneasy. And some show Swift learning to accept both what her partner has to give and her own willingness to receive it. “Sweet Nothing” is a charming and possibly too-simple electric-piano admission of devotion and gratitude towards someone who demands nothing of her.
Swift ties the threads together in the closing cut, “Mastermind.” Blurring the lines between fate, happenstance, and direct manipulation, she looks back on how she and her man became a thing and manages to come off devious and sweetly innocent all at once. “And now you’re mine / It was all by design,” she sings, aware of her own unreliability as a narrator but ending Midnights on a note of grace nonetheless. In dreams, no one ever sees the contradictions. B+
Midnights is out now.