Midnights, by Taylor Swift
It has been some time since I could consider myself even modestly a fan of Taylor Swift, and as is sometimes the case I am not sure exactly how it happened nor was I aware of it happening until it was already well into the process of happening. As is the case with a great many artists, Swift’s career has had a varied trajectory, beginning in pop-country, leaning heavily into pop, and then moving into folk-pop. This album finds her at a bit of a crossroads, musically speaking, as her last albums attempted to eschew the image that she had established throughout her career of writing intensely and overly personal songs about her boy/man troubles. This album seems, at least going into it, to be going back into extremely and perhaps uncomfortably personal territory with it being a concept album about thirteen sleepless nights. Though I have heard some mixed comments on the album, I have tried to avoid critical essays on the project so as to listen to the material with as open a mind as possible, given that over Swift’s career I have moved rather strongly from fondness for her perspective to immense irritation with her personal and musical choices. So, what do I think of the material? Let’s see.
The album begins with “Lavender Haze,” which finds Taylor Swift intoxicated with a budding relationship and overburdened with her hostility to expectations and scrutiny. “Maroon” follows with a somewhat oppressive musical palette that explores a dysfunctional sleepless night filled with romantic melodrama. “Anti-Hero,” the first single from the album, follows with a somewhat self-indulgent reflection on her problems and her negative view of herself, where she tries to seize the low ground to make someone feel bad for calling her a narcissist when she calls herself it first. “Snow On The Beach” (featuring Lana Del Rey) is a lovely song about the intoxicating and manic joy of infatuation where Swift hopes against hope that it will work out better this time. “You’re On Your Own, Kid,” features more insecurity and self-absorbed musing about a crush or relationship gone wrong set to an EDM beat that reminds one of early pop TS. “Midnight” features some weird pitch-shifted vocals for the chorus and more self-absorbed musings about a doomed relationship with a guy who wanted a different kind of life than Swift could handle. “Question…?” features Swift with a side boy making bad choices and against irritating questions while she was drinking and talking about landmine subjects while thinking that she is asking innocent questions. “Vigilante S***” features Swift in her bad blood mode going off on revenge mode to an austere and nearly tuneless beat. “Bejeweled” features Swift in a vengeful and spiteful mood in a dysfunctional relationship threatening to go out to the club to cheat on a partner she is dissatisfied with. “Labyrinth” features another sleepless night spent pining over some boy and her own trust issues and the anxiety that falling in love brings her with music that could be on a late-era Panic! At The Disco album filler track. “Karma” is an upbeat song that shows Swift in a delusional mood thinking that karma is close to her because she lives a clean and good life as opposed to someone else, leaving one to wonder why she had a sleepless night gloating against a supposed rival or hater. “Sweet Nothing” has rather nursery rhyme lyrics and a reflection on the relationship between Swift’s desire and longing for love and the outside pressure of her political and career interests. “Mastermind” closes the album with more lovestruck musings about how Swift thinks of herself as having masterminded a relationship with someone.
This album is the sort of disaster that makes me want to find comparables and explain the sense of dread the album gives me and the concern it leaves me to have for Swift or for anyone unfortunate enough to be in her orbit. This album is what you get when you take Adele’s 30 and make all the songs half as long with cheap early 2010’s EDM production but a similar lack of emotional growth and maturity over the career arc. This is an album that almost dares the listener to engage in psychoanalysis, directly mentioning melancholia and depression and narcissism and being less open about mania while making the listener wonder if John Mayer’s “Paper Doll” was truly an accurate portrayal of Swift’s psyche and making one feel bad for being so hard on him about it. Among the many problems with this album is that the concept shows Swift being self-aware about her problems without having done any of the self-care that allows for moral and emotional maturity. Similarly, the basic and simple production of the album puts attention on lyrics that tend to alienate rather than charm the listener. This album only works with an audience that wants to reassure Swift and tell her she’s not as bad as she says she is, rather than one who thinks she may indeed be a good deal worse than she is willing to admit.