This Swift, who has never shirked from opening a vein of vulnerability, has drilled down another few layers. On her 10th studio album, she’s not only offering us her most personal reflections – a high bar in Swift's world – but imparting them with poetic grace and an elevated level of storytelling.
The rapt reception to the stripped-down musicality and raw emotion on her last two albums boosted her confidence as a songwriter, and even as she returns to a pop backdrop heavy on synths and electronic drums, Swift remains our lyrical savant.
So much of “Midnights” benefits from listening to it at the witching hour. In a darkened room with headphones on, it feels as if Swift is directly unspooling stories of her life, and her colorful wordplay (“I’m damned if I do give a damn what people say,” she sings on “Lavender Haze”) and clever enigmas (we’ve got questions about “Question … ?”) only make us listen more intently, determined to solve these riddles.
Swift worked with longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff on 11 of the album's 13 songs (“William Bowery,” aka Swift’s beau Joe Alwyn, gets the co-write on the unfussy “Sweet Nothing,” while Swift handles the creeping “Vigilante S---” solo). With Antonoiff's assist, she digs into her past and leaves an enticing trail of bread crumbs.
Here’s a look at “Midnights.”
In her online “Midnights Mayhem With Me” video series leading up to the album’s release, Swift said “Mad Men” alerted her to the ’50s-era phrase of "Lavender Haze" that meant "you were in an all-encompassing love glow." With its gentle pulse and buzzing undercurrent, the song – which includes Zoë Kravitz as a writer – showcases Swift’s upper range as she navigates the scrutiny of a public relationship (“All they keep asking me is if I’m gonna be your bride”).
Synths stretch into a gummy swirl while adjectives and well-placed expletives abound as Swift recounts a fling with “the one I was dancing with in New York.” Her vivid imagery is striking as she recalls the burgundy on her T-shirt from a splash of red wine, the scarlet blood that rushed to her cheeks and, in one of her classically vivid lyrics, the person standing “hollow-eyed in the hallway” with “carnations you had thought were roses.”
The first single from “Midnights” is an unflinching internal study of screw-ups and apologies. The instantly insinuating melody coupled with the heartbeat driving the song are appealing enough. But Swift’s labyrinthine delivery of lines such as, “I should not be left to my own devices, they come with prices and vices, I end up in crisis” will make you smile at her slyness, as well as her ability to inject shades of Kate Bush into the vibe.
‘Snow on the Beach’
Swift sweeps her voice sweetly over a plucked violin while pal Lana Del Rey joins her on a creamy swoop of background vocals. The wintry feel of the song evokes The Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town” with its balance of aching beauty and inherent melancholy. The cute name-check of Janet Jackson, however, is all Swiftian.
Yearning to be noticed and confused by mixed signals that continue over time (“from sprinkler splashes to fireplace ashes”), Swift ultimately determines that the guy just wasn’t worth it.
The deeply processed, wavering voice that opens the song? That’s Swift, her vocals pitched low, as she enters into an exploratory dichotomy (“He was sunshine, I was midnight rain / He wanted it comfortable, I wanted that pain”), while a Moog synthesizer provides space-age effects.
‘Question … ?’
Swifties will be kept busy for weeks parsing the lyrics of these tracks, and this conversational entry with a sneaky chorus that asks, “Did you leave her house in the middle of the night? Did you wish you’d put up more of a fight when she said it was too much? Do you wish you could still touch … her?” will keep them surmising. Swift, meanwhile, is content to admit she “got swept away in the gray.”
Another lyrical playground for fans who relish digging deep (who, among Swift’s public enemies, might this one be targeting?) and also loved the snarly sounds of “Reputation.” The minor chords and theatrical chorus provide the noir ambiance.
A collection of glistening keyboard sequences that don’t exactly soar, the best parts of the song are Swift’s ace lyrics: “Don’t put me in the basement / When I want the penthouse of your heart” and “Did all the extra credit then got graded on a curve / I think it’s time to teach some lessons.”
Many of Swift’s songs flutter with an ethereal quality, but as she remains in her upper register throughout, she captures a feeling of almost literally falling in love. A delicate music bed serves as her pillow-y landing spot.
Fate and destiny are common themes in Swift’s world and here, over a deliberate chug of a beat, she is resolute in her assertion: “Trick me once, trick me twice / Don’t you know that cash ain’t the only price / It’s coming back around.” Best get out of the way when Swift reminds, “me and karma vibe like that.”
A wispy ballad that quivers with a singsong element reminiscent of a nursery rhyme, it’s a love song peppered with subtle flutes and clarinet that celebrates the comforting escapes from the madness.
Ending this journey with a thumping ode to her own shrewdness – presented, of course, with a coy wink – Swift leaves us with her triumphant final assessment: “I laid the groundwork and then just like clockwork / The dominoes cascaded in a line … You see, all the wisest women had to do it this way / 'Cause we were born to be the pawn in every lover’s game / If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”