Album Review: Taylor Swift - 'Midnights'
While 2020's “folklore” and “evermore” were semi-surprise albums, “Midnights” marks a full-blown mass-marketed spectacle the likes of which we have not seen from Swift since 2019’s “Lover,” the kind of album with glossy promos aired during NFL games and not merely slyly mentioned on social media a day in advance.
And given the tonal differences between “Lover,” a fairly conventionally assembled pop album, and the “folklore” and “evermore” double-punch – self-consciously written, performed and marketed as home studio albums, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for listeners to assume that “Midnights,” despite the album’s lighter-infused cover art, would resume some semblance of straightforward pop. For the last three years that Swift has spent largely off the road, it seems she has been yearning for something that can play in arenas rather than the coffee house chic of her latter-day folk-pop.
Of course, “Midnights” isn’t just some sort of club record – Swift is, after all, 32-years-old, and her version of growing up involves, arguably, her most interesting lyrical album yet.
Although the LP's opener, “Lavender Haze,” has shades of the pop explosion of “1989,” it’s Swift’s last four albums most readily conjured by the sonics of “Midnights.” Most easily noticed are hints of “reputation,” an album noted frequently for its darkness upon its release, though much of the autobiographical angst of the lyrics is subdued, if not exactly entirely offset, by ample synthesizers. In this regard, “Midnights” feels more like an '80s album than “1989,” if your notion of '80s music is Depeche Mode-esque part-pop/part-electronica. But the album isn’t short on transparently 21st century touches, such as the auto-tuned opening on “Midnight Rain” or the auto-tuned closing on “Labyrinth.”
Swift has hardly abandoned the general folk leanings of the last two albums, though. While the (to be clear, generally good) 2020 duo could get a bit redundant and lifeless after enough time, Swift has improved at her ability to keep her slower, effective ballads (“Sweet Nothing” and her Lana Del Rey collaboration “Snow on the Beach”) from becoming the entire thesis of the album, and while these songs could have easily been stripped down to their bare bones, they are produced in a more studio-forward manner.
With the possible exception of “Maroon,” the second track, which is hardly a bad song, "Midnights" never dips into the realm of the dull. And while the personal “Anti-Hero” is a fine song, soaked in synthesizers, it doesn’t quite have the punch of some of Swift’s great singles. I might have, instead, gone with “Karma,” silly as its lyrics trend at times, as the lead single and then kept an eye on “Bejeweled” as a later single. However, Swift is more defined in her 30s as an album artist than a singles one, so this might be an irrelevant concern.
One stark difference between this album and Swift’s recent output is its brevity – at just a tick over 44 minutes without a single track longer than 4:16, this marks her shortest album since her 2006 self-titled debut. Given that Swift’s most culturally resonant moment of the 2020s to this point was the 10:13 version of “All Too Well,” it’s hard to argue that she has abandoned the epic sweep, but given how “Midnights” juxtaposes with “folklore” and “evermore,” songs which reflect a shut-down, stuck-at-home world, which largely differs from the world "Midnights" has been born into, the record's quickness is a strength. Despite (or perhaps assured because of) the strength of its lyrics, Swift's 10ths studio album is devoid of pretension musically, which makes it easy to embrace.
Overall, Swift’s synthesis of the dark pop of “reputation” and the lonely wistfulness of “folklore” makes the album an inviting one. It probably won’t make anybody who has adamantly avoided her music in the past convert to worshiping her, but for anyone who has enjoyed any of her post-“Red” work, there will surely be at least something worthwhile here.