16 years after the arrival of her debut and returning with her fifth major release in just over two years, it’s truly impressive that Taylor Swift is still shattering records. It seemed like it was out of reach that any album would ever sell over a million in its first week ever again, but this industry titan’s put up over 1.5 million with a surprise release – the first to break the million mark since her own reputation, five years and four albums ago. With such a torrid release pace, you’d think that she would be slowing down creatively. While it doesn’t measure up to her striking folk-pop breakthrough sister albums of folklore and evermore, Midnights thrives in a happy medium. It feels like a natural progression back in the direction of her shimmering pop world, featuring brighter melodies delivered by her calmer, wispy folk vocal tones. And despite a couple eyebrow-raising lyrics and lower-key cuts that take a while to get off the ground, Swift’s firm grasp on pop mastery is still here, assisted as usual by Jack Antonoff. It’s a good time to be a Swiftie.
The pitched vocal sample that kicks off opening track “Lavender Haze” threw me off at first, but it’s the kind of bizarre quirk that grows on you. Midnights kicks off with a very strong opening run, mostly due to Swift’s speedy, sharp and rhythmic choruses – she delivers a line like “the 1950s s**t they want from me” like she was in a funk band. Speaking of what they want, Swift lyrically tackles her annoyance with the media speculation now that she’s on the other side of the romantic coin, the one long-derided for jumping between relationships finding herself six years going strong and fielding questions about marriage instead. Bolstered by an appropriately hazy instrumental and some great harmonies, she continues showing her lyrical prowess by connecting that 1950s idea to a slang term of the era, content to remain in her blissful lavender haze of love and ignore the rest. The strong lyricism continues onto the track “Maroon” with some vivid specificity about a perfect date night, the Red kind of love she previously introduced evolving into a deeper maroon. The octave drop on the final chorus brings out her passion and intensity, while Jack Antonoff provides one of his classic low-key yet massive-sounding instrumentals – it’s sparse, but what is there sparkles with awe and reverence. Of course, whoever tweeted “folklore made so many of you forget that at her core Taylor Swift is a cringe millennial” was absolutely right, and that comes out for the first time on lead single “Anti-Hero.” Despite some bizarre lyrics about her dreams, the track was clearly chosen because it’s the most reminiscent of classic pop Taylor, down to her beautifully light and airy delivery – plus, it’s great to hear her getting a little self-aware.
The album’s only feature in Lana Del Rey appears for “Snow On The Beach,” which opens with a truly Christmassy atmosphere as Swift tries to pull off an even more low-key, Del Rey-esque track than the ones that appeared on folklore. They work when Lana does them because she’s just about one of the only singers who can pull off the ethereal vibes better than Taylor right now, but for some reason, she’s relegated to whispery backing vocals. The track builds up a bit on the percussion end, but from a melodic standpoint, it remains relatively sleepy. Swift’s track 5s have a big reputation – no pun intended – and the cathartic track “You’re On Your Own, Kid” certainly lives up to it. Another thing that folklore made us realize is that Swift is consistently at her best, especially lyrically, when she steps into a character or another version of herself, as she seems to do here with a song about overcoming and learning from first heartbreaks and teenage insecurities. The instrumental swells along with increased layering on her vocals as the realizations and betrayals get more panicked and intense, before the meaning of the track’s title shifts as she realizes it’s not so bad. “Midnight Rain” keeps things strong with the closest thing Swift’s done to hyperpop and the best melody on the project, pitched down under a skittering breakbeat to make it all the more memorable as high-pitched synths in the back complete the picture.
The track “Question…?” almost feels like the teenage insecurities that come across so well in a character piece now applied to her current life. With some drama-filled lyrics that blow things out of proportion and verse melodies that feel a little static and awkward, the track does build up to a truly hard-hitting second half with some hip-hop energy but it takes too long to get there. “Labyrinth” is another track in the back half that doesn’t measure up to the strength of her recent work, reminiscent of the very folksy, repetitive and hypnotic tracks on her 2020 albums like “epiphany,” but without as much of a compelling narrative as she returns to familiar themes of romance we heard earlier. “Vigilante S**t” finds Swift getting on the Billie Eilish wave with an understated yet menacing instrumental that hits a lot harder with a pair of headphones. Combining it with some lyrical sarcastic eye-rolls and twinkling pianos that suddenly veer off-key, Swift pulls off this dark-pop angle surprisingly well and gets in some subtle jabs at her very public enemies – of course. “Bejeweled” is another one with an immediately memorable chorus – the way Swift says “shimmer” has to be the album’s single greatest moment – and the track itself sounds bejeweled with some bright and bouncy synth work. “Did all the extra credit then got graded on a curve” has to be her best petty lyric in a while.
Speaking of pettiness, you’re not going to find it any more concentrated than on the track “Karma.” Another huge pop production that would have fit in near the album’s beginnings, Swift toasts to the superhuman strength of the kind of karma that always finds her foes struggling at the same time as she succeeds in her most breezy and jubilant tone. It’s a fun and goofy track to round things out, and the best way to use her more tongue-in-cheek lyrics. “Sweet Nothing” is a truly sweet piano ballad co-written with its subject himself as Swift once again celebrates the safety and normalcy of a relationship less out of the public eye. Getting ever-so-slightly more intense and passionate with her delivery at the end gives it a very believable, human angle that tugs on the heartstrings. Swift has always been looked at as a brilliantly meticulous planner when it comes to her career, and she carries that idea over to the “chance” encounters and signs that built her relationship as well as she closes out the project with “Mastermind.”
Ten albums in, and Swift’s next step is still anyone’s guess. Now with a true masterpiece under her belt and continuing to release high-quality work at a rapid pace, all that’s left to do now is look forward to the tour, wondering how she’s going to cram four new albums into her setlist.
Favourite Tracks: Midnight Rain, Bejeweled, Lavender Haze, Maroon, You’re On Your Own Kid
Least Favourite Track: Labyrinth