Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Taylor Swift Midnights

Republic
2022
Republic
2022

Taylor Swift made a Chvrches album.

There’s a lot happening on Midnights, Taylor Swift’s tenth studio LP. There was a lot happening before we’d even heard a note of music. Taylor Swift’s career has charted a truly unpredictable path over the years, from her vengeful country-pop Disney-princess early years to the self-conscious stadium-status retro-poses of her pop peak and from her thrashing electro-anxiety wilderness era to the stately NPR-friendly indie-folk moves of her last two albums. Ever since evermore, Swift has been reliving her past, re-recording her old albums in a valiant attempt to take back owndership from Justin Bieber’s manager and the people who bought her catalog from him.

Those Taylor’s Version re-releases have led to a whole lot of frenzied speculation about Midnights, and Swift has continued to stoke that speculation with her series of crypto-ironic TikTok posts. Would Swift make another singer-songwriter record? Would she make a record with Drake? Would she take another leap into a whole new sound? Nope. Not this time. This time, we get a Chvrches album.

Taylor Swift recorded all of Midnights with her old buddy Jack Antonoff, and you can tell. The album builds on the quietest, most downbeat moments from 1989 and Reputation, the tracks like “Out Of The Woods” and “Getaway Car” where the sonic sparkle got quieter and more contemplative. That was the sound that Swift seemed most invested in exploring on Lover, but on that album, Swift still felt like she needed big and bright singles like “Me!” and “You Need To Calm Down.” She knows better now.

There are only a few echoes of Swift’s Aaron Dessner-aided 2020 acoustic detour on Midnights, though Dessner did produce and co-write three of the bonus tracks on Midnights (3am Edition). In any case, Swift learned something when she was making those two rustic 2020 albums. She found out that she can make quiet, murmuring dinner-party music and that the world will still treat her as a very big deal. She doesn’t have to jump around and shoot off fireworks to keep everyone’s attention anymore. She has it. She’s good. It’s been a valuable lesson.

The songs on Midnights sound small and personal, but they still work as pop songs. Taylor Swift might never mount another stadium tour, and Midnights sounds like the work of someone who’s not worried about how the tracks will sound when they’re echoing around in the cheap seats while confetti shoots into the sky. The vocals are softer, more intimate. The words are denser and more layered. These aren’t indie-folk songs, but they could be. My colleague Chris DeVille described the album as “just folklore with synthesizers instead of acoustic guitars,” and I get what he means. Swift and Jack Antonoff, producing together, have employed their full arsenal of glimmer-bloop keyboards and drums that go boom. But Swift just isn’t operating on a world-crushing scale anymore. It’s a relief, both for her and for us.

Swift’s re-recordings of her older songs have been sharp and exacting, but they never sound quite the same as the originals. This makes sense. Nobody can fault a grown-ass 32-year-old woman for being unable to hit the same pleading, yearning high notes as she did when she was a kid. She’s noticed. On Midnights, Swift sticks to her lower register. Her delivery is soft and deep and inviting. She’s crammed her lines full of internal rhymes, and she pushes her cadences up against the beat. This isn’t like that awkward “End Game” moment when Taylor was trying to quasi-rap over trap 808s with Future and Ed Sheeran, but she definitely listens to rap, and it’s definitely informed the ways that she groups words together.

Jack Antonoff’s Red Hearse bandmate Sounwave co-produced a couple of the songs on Midnights. Taylor Swift has worked directly with Kendrick Lamar before — on a #1 hit, no less — but it’s still pretty fascinating to hear her working with one of the sonic architects of good kid, m.A.A.d. city almost exactly 10 years to the day after that album and Red both came out.

Do yourself a favor, though: Don’t read the lyrics. If the lyrics on Midnights prove anything, it’s that Taylor Swift has no editors. She’s ascended to the very apex of the music business — so far above the rest of the world that nobody is willing to tell her to reconsider anything anymore. There was not one person at any point in the entire Midnights production process who was willing or able to tell Swift to maybe take another pass at some of these lyrics. That’s the only explanation that I can find for some of these clangers.

Consider: “Draw the cat eye sharp enough to kill a man/ You did some bad things, but I’m the worst of them.” Or: “Karma is a cat, purring in my lap ’cause it loves me/ Flexing like a goddamn acrobat/ Me and karma vibe like that.” Or, most crucially: “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby and I’m a monster on the hill.” That last one is on the single, and it sets up a visual punchline in the video. If you’re out here singing about “everybody is a sexy baby” on your single, you have entered a strange and rarefied pop-star airspace. Nobody can tell you a thing.

When I say that you should not read the lyrics, it’s not because the lyrics are bad. To be clear: Those lyrics are bad. Some of them are just dumbfounding. I cannot remember the last time that a surefire pop blockbuster was this loaded down with tortured wordplay, with shards of language that would get you laughed out of the room in any self-respecting MFA workshop. The lyrics are bad in that fun way, in that way that strives for greatness without getting there. Some of the lines on Midnights will live in meme infamy, and they will deserve that fate.

The line between great lyrics and terrible lyrics can be vanishingly thin, and some of the bad lyrics on Midnights are deeply endearing. They’re still bad. Since Taylor Swift has always invited lyric-sheet obsessiveness, reveling in her own Easter eggs and secret meanings, she’s painted some big and glowing targets on her own writing. And sure, it’s fun to point out bad lyrics; I can’t front like I’m not having a good time picking out some of the worst. (To be clear: There are also some great lyrics on Midnights. The bad lyrics just jump out more.) But if all that you’re seeing is the bad lyrics, then you are not respecting the motherfucking craft. By now, you should’ve learned better.

There are precious few bangers on Midnights. Taylor Swift is in her post-banger era. “Anti-Hero” and a couple of others hit hard, but none of these songs are as charged and commanding as “Picture To Burn” or “You Belong With Me” or “Back To December” or “22” or practically anything on 1989. That’s not a complaint. Taylor Swift has never trafficked exclusively in bangers. Midnights feels like a collection of Swift’s deep-cut growers.

The songs on Midnights follow the template of “My Tears Ricochet” and “Cornelia Street” — the tracks that sneak up on you over time. Six or seven listens in, some of these songs have already become sentimental favorites. “Labyrinth” and “Mastermind” and the bonus cut “Bigger Than The Whole Sky” are stunners. Once you get past the disappointment of Lana Del Rey’s guest-feature on “Snow On The Beach” being nothing more than a few background coos, the song snaps into focus. Some of the musical ideas at work on the album, like the Purity Ring-style vocal manipulations scattered throughout, are already starting to make more sense. The melodies on Midnights are immaculately constructed. These songs are not anthems or earworms, but they fill up a room and make the air taste better. I would love to hear some more immediate top-down endorphin-rush Taylor Swift jams, but her downbeat burbles can be just as effective, and there are some really, really good downbeat burbles on Midnights.

When she announced Midnights, Taylor Swift described the album as “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life.” That doesn’t mean she’s addressing larger anxiety-producing societal issues. It means that she’s exploring old feelings and new ones. The storylines on Midnights are all ultra-familiar. We’ve heard Taylor Swift exploding with new love before. We’ve heard her reeling from ugly breakups. In recent years, we’ve heard her easing into domestic bliss. On Midnights, she gives us more of that. “Midnight Rain” has her leaving behind a small-town boyfriend who’s nice but not exciting. “Vigilante Shit” and “Karma” find her fantasizing about revenge against a cheating man, or against the idea of cheating men in general. “Lavender Haze” and “Sweet Nothing” are meditations on how good it feels to escape from prying eyes with someone who accepts her as she is. It’s all familiar territory.

So the big question is: What do you want from Taylor Swift? Do you want her to reinvent herself every time out? Do you want her to get back to cranking out teenage brat-pop monster-jams forevermore? Do you wish she’d stay in the respectable grown-up folklore lane a little while longer? Do you wish she’d write lyrics that don’t make you want to slap yourself in the forehead? If you’re looking for any of those things, then Midnights might lose you. If you’re a Taylor Swift skeptic, then Midnights probably won’t convince you. But I bought a ticket years ago, and I’m still taking the ride.

Taylor Swift earned pop-legend status around the time she reached drinking age, and she has earned the right to do what she wants. Right now, she wants to make lightly percolating mood-board synthpop jams with a few jarringly overwritten lyrics. For me, that’ll work. Midnights isn’t my favorite Taylor Swift album, and it probably won’t become my favorite Taylor Swift album. Right now, though, Midnights sounds pretty great. The strobing synths, the low-key harmonies, the itchy drum machines, the hiccuping vocal filters — they’re all working together to create an appealing fall-sunlight glow. If this is what Taylor Swift wants to give us, I’ll take it.

Midnights is out now on Republic.

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