She is diaristically precise, a relentless excavator of her own internal tugs of war, and she has always been at her finest when writing about herself, Taylor Swift. However, she also finds success when writing about “Taylor Swift,” whether it is the persona, the concept, or the metanarrative. Swift is aware of how the rest of the world perceives her, and rather than shutting off this awareness, she chooses to absorb it and incorporate it into her own worldview. To some extent.
It is those songs that stand out on “Midnights,” her tenth studio album, which has an overly familiar sounding and spotty production. The album is, in some places, a careful recitation of raw love, in others, a flashback to past romantic indignities, but perhaps most pointedly and effectively, a commentary on what it feels like to live as a deeply observed figure who is constantly nartivized by others.
Swift ponders on the song “Anti-Hero,” which is a hauntingly shimmering piece reminiscent of Kate Bush and is one of the album’s high points. “Tale as ancient as time.” At the hook, she repeatedly and sarcastically asserts, “I’m the issue, it’s me.” She does this while rolling her eyes at herself. In the music video for the song, Taylor Swift can be seen downing drinks alongside an even more out-of-control version of herself, while a third giantess version of Swift watches the scene from a distance, stumbling and looking somewhat downcast.
In this regard, Taylor Swift is mostly staring in the rearview mirror on “Midnights,” an album that frequently seems like an extension of her 2019 studio album “Lover,” which was equally erratic but had a fuller-sounding sound overall. The album has an ethereal, slow-motion impression, as if Swift were locked in a reverb chamber, and the tracks here are loaded to the brim with sugary synthesisers, giving the record an otherworldly feel.
In spite of this, however, the majority of the other tracks on “Midnights,” which Swift and her frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff produced, place restrictions on Swift’s singing voice. On tracks like “You’re On Your Own, Kid” and “Maroon,” as well as elsewhere on the album, Swift’s vocals are layered so thickly that they almost suffocate the listener. Only on “Sweet Nothing,” the passionate playground lullaby that Swift penned with her longstanding love partner, Joe Alwyn (the actor who adopts the pen name William Bowery), does she come close to approaching the wide-eyed vulnerability that has become her trademark.
A handful of songs provide a glimpse of light amid the darkness. Even though it sounds an awful lot like the thundering digital folk of Maggie Rogers’s “Alaska,” the quick, airy, and somewhat wet “Lavender Haze” has some lovely vocals.
The song “Midnights” might be interpreted in a significantly more pessimistic manner due to the musical choices that were made: Since the release of “Reputation” in 2018, Swift has not gone on tour. The songs from the album “Lover” have never been performed on a huge stage, just as the songs from the albums “Folklore” and “Evermore” weren’t really suitable for such an environment. The song “Midnights” has the sound of a musical place holder and was likely written with stadiums in mind.
All of this raises the issue of where Swift may go as a pop artist in the middle of her career if she decided to make another career change. The majority of the other opportunities that are now available to her are inapplicable, such as Dua Lipa’s emotionally chilly nu-disco or the vocal and cultural versatility that would enable her to freely work with Latin or K-pop singers. “Midnight Rain” and “Lavender Haze” are two examples of the songs on “Midnights” that give the impression that the artist is aware of the techniques that Drake and The Weeknd have used to create an ominous atmosphere in the vocal and musical production of their songs, but she does not fully commit to these techniques. (There are also some pitch-shifted voices that aren’t quite convincing.) And she has rejected a return to country, pop-country, or country-pop quite resolutely throughout the course of her career.
However, there is already a model for an album that may distort one’s viewpoint, and that model is as follows: It was released by Swift in 2017, and the title of the album is “Reputation.” It was somewhat mocked at the time, and this was done in a very incorrect manner. Swift has not always sounded so amused, so angry, and so eager to grapple with the abyss that exists between her sense of herself and everyone else’s impression of her. Swift challenged not just herself but also the whole world in this boisterous, sticky, and unrelentingly smart album that she released.