'Midnights' finds the megastar in vulnerable moments of sorrow, anxiety and romance.
According to a study exploring the various methods of tackling insomnia, some of the most common causes of disturbed sleep include intrusive thoughts, worries or what is described as “a racing mind”. While some people might struggle through, suppressing their woes until they hopefully find relief, others might try various sleep therapies to alleviate their concerns. If you’re Taylor Swift, however, you’ll write an album about them. That’s what the 32-year-old has done with her tenth record, Midnights, described as “a collection of music written in the middle of the night, a journey through terrors and sweet dreams”.
Taylor, of course, is no stranger to using a bad situation to her advantage. Her last two albums, 2020’s Grammy-winning Folklore and sister record Evermore, were produced during the pandemic while many of us were despairing, baking bread and playing Animal Crossing. She’s likewise in the midst of an extensive project to re-record her old albums in order to claim ownership of her masters, an endeavour that has so far seen two releases, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and 2021’s Red (Taylor’s Version). That’s not to mention a 17-year career where she’s wielded experiences of heartbreak, public scrutiny and misogyny to craft some of the finest pop songs of all time. No matter the obstacle, she always appears to come out on top.
At least that was the case until Midnights. Rather than depicting an ever-conquering victor against adversity, of a girl who ultimately gets the guy and lives happily-ever-after, Taylor’s armour — her ever-cheerful affability; her relatable public image; her unwavering sense of morality — feels like it’s showing some cracks. It appears not even Taylor Swift can always defeat the scary and whirring uncertainty of one’s mind after dark. But, as the songs on Midnights prove, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Album opener “Lavender Haze” is the perfect example. Late night beats and synths that undulate like an ultrasound carry Taylor’s conflicted feelings about the security of her relationship and the societal expectations placed upon it. “All they keep asking me/ Is if I’m gonna be your bride,” she sings with weariness on the second verse. “The only kinda girl they see/ Is a one night or a wife.” Whereas before Taylor may have addressed such misogyny with a head-on rebuttal — think “The Man” or even Speak Now’s “Mean” — here she’s less biting. “No deal/ The 1950s shit they want from me,” she sings on the chorus, before escaping, or retreating, into the safety of the status quo: “I just wanna stay in that lavender haze.”
With “Anti-Hero”, meanwhile, Taylor is wracked with anxiety and shame. As with “The Archer” from 2019’s Lover, she turns her pen inwards, eviscerating herself with the sort of crimson-cheeked criticism and concerns one can only inflict on themselves alone at night. “When my depression works the graveyard shift/All of the people I’ve ghosted stand there in the room/ I should not be left to my own devices, they come with prices and vices, I end up in crisis,” she sings over glitzy 1989-era production (we see you Jack Antonoff), before delivering herself a devastating blow on the chorus: “I’m the problem, it’s me… Everybody agrees.”
Taylor also confronts the perception of her as calculating on “Mastermind”, a song where the production — all scattered synths and soft four-to-the-floor beats — builds and builds without ever truly reaching a climax. At first a typically Swiftian affair, focused on the chess-like manoeuvring of relationships, it shifts perspective and offers a surprising amount of self-awareness. Not only is Taylor apparently conscious of her complicity in those games, but she understands why, too: “No one wanted to play with me as a little kid/ So I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since/ To make them love me and make it seem effortless,” she admits on the bridge. “This is the first time I’ve felt the need to confess/ And I swear I’m only cryptic and Machiavellian ‘cause I care.”
Such candour from a popstar so previously concerned with controlling the narrative continues on “Question…?”, a track that appears to reframe stories from 1989, most notably “Out of the Woods”, which is sampled right at the opening of the song. Gone is the rose-tinted nostalgia, the dichromatic notion of right and wrong, and the green naivety of love’s simplicity. Instead, Taylor wades through ambiguity, acknowledging the interference of outside forces (“Fuckin’ politics and gender roles”) and the “Fuckin’ situations, circumstances/ Miscommunications.” Even the production seems to subvert “Out of the Woods”, that song’s fizzing and propulsive excitement replaced with a dappled and watery sense of contemplation, the synths buried low in the mix and the full scale of the percussion only kicking in during the second chorus.
On “Midnight Rain”, Taylor is similarly pensive. Over the ambient roll of windy synths, she mourns a relationship lost to her ambition as she sings, “He wanted it comfortable/ I wanted that pain/ He wanted a bride/ I was making my own name,” her voice almost unrecognisably pitched down, given a slightly demonic quality. Likewise, “You’re On Your Own, Kid”, a wounded and resigned song about infatuation, unrequited love and the sacrifice necessary for Taylor’s level of success details her isolation with chest-crushing detail: “I gave my blood, sweat and tears for this/ I hosted parties and starved my body… You’re on your own, kid/ You always have been.”
Her thornier side rears its head on “Vigilante Shit”, a muddy electronic snarl of a song that draws on the hard spitefulness of Reputation and which will undoubtedly lead to speculation about who exactly it’s aimed at. “Karma”, on the other hand, is less oblique, Taylor revelling in the spoils of her career post-Big Machine over the effervescent swell that shimmers over the song’s rubbery electronics. It’s perhaps the album’s only fiercely defiant spike, a vindicated smile in a collection of some uneasy self-portraits.
Surprisingly, the album’s least compelling moments are the most romantic. “Snow On The Beach”, the only track that recalls the woodsy experimentation of Folklore and Evermore, treads similar ground to “Enchanted”, but does so without that song’s desperate conviction — Lana Del Rey’s appearance also feels like a missed opportunity, although the reference to Janet Jackson’s “All For You” during the bridge is appreciated. And “Sweet Nothing”, co-written with William Bowery, the pen-name used by Joe Alwyn, revels in the pure high of relationship bliss. It’s disappointing because Taylor dangles the meaty confession about the fear and hesitation of using her platform as a celebrity to advocate for socio-political issues in the song’s second verse, admitting “I’m just too soft for all of it.” It’s a vulnerable revelation that gets buried under the song’s focus on domesticity.
What is perhaps preventing further excavation, however, is time: Taylor may simply be too in the moment to unpack these feelings. It sits at odds with the rest of the songs on Midnights, which feel like they all benefit from a healthy dose of hindsight. By exploring “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life”, as she called Midnights, she has engaged in a genuinely humanising and often revelatory exercise. In the loneliness of the dark, Taylor is just as exposed, flawed and anxious as the rest of us. You can’t help but wonder what else might be keeping her up at night — here’s hoping she’ll tell us about it soon.