A review of Taylor Swift’s “Midnights”
Part seven in my ongoing and apparently endless series on the music of Taylor Swift – see parts one, two, three, four, five, and six)
With Midnights, her tenth studio album, Taylor Swift leaves no doubt that she’s in a creative league all her own. That reality has been apparent for some time now, especially after the surprise releases of folklore and evermore in 2020 – and Midnights puts the matter beyond any reasonable doubt. But the album is more than a just portrait of an artist at the height of her powers – Midnights is a brilliant record in its own right. Painfully intimate, relentlessly introspective, and intrinsically universal all at once, it’s an album that sinks its emotional hooks deep into listeners before we even have a chance to realize it.
On Midnights, Swift invites us to get lost in the labyrinth of her – and our own – late-night ruminations, the hall of mirrors that reflects our anxieties and insecurities and ecstasies back at ourselves. It’s a far moodier album than its immediate predecessors, one that perfectly captures the writhing emotional contortions we endure when we stay up to wrestle with our hopes, fears, and worries in the middle of the night. Swift conjures up an aura of claustrophobia on Midnights, giving us a queasy sense that we’re all on our own as we embark on what she calls our nocturnal “journey through terrors and sweet dreams.”
Appropriately, then, it’s a record that deals extensively with the questions and issues surrounding intimacy, human connection, and lacerating self-doubt that have preoccupied Swift throughout her career. On Midnights, she refracts her thematic concerns through a neon-lit soundscape of purring, ambient synthesizers and palpitating drum machines, complemented by the occasional buzz of distorted electric guitars and pensive acoustic strumming. This sonic panorama does more than evoke the up-at-midnight vibes that concern Swift on this record; it puts her own vocals front and center, calling attention to Swift’s emotive performance as well as her lyrics.
That’s apparent with the pulsating opening track “Lavender Haze,” a song that sets the tone for the album as a whole. It’s a finely drawn portrait of the narcotic exhilaration inherent in falling in love, both sedate and urgent in its sound and lyrics. Swift also gives us a glimpse into the sort of unconditional acceptance and intimacy she and most everyone searches for in a romantic partner, namely a person who accepts us for who we are and doesn’t care about what others say or think about us. Indeed, the song’s a call to indifference in the face of the criticism and gossip that might swirl about our personal lives: “Talk your talk and go viral/I just need this love spiral.” Or as Swift put it elsewhere, “this song is sort of about the act of ignoring that [external] stuff to protect the real stuff.”
Midnights immediately turns darker with “Maroon,” an exceptional song that continues Swift’s penchant for using color as a mode of musical and emotional expression. This time around, however she paints in rather somber shades: maroon, scarlet, and burgundy, and rust, blood, rubies, and wine. It’s a stark contrast with the burning red of her 2012 song and album (it’s perhaps no coincidence that “Maroon” is also the second track its album), one that reminds us that love often leaves us with emotional bruises and scars – even when there’s no enmity involved. The song draws its emotional power from the way Swift dexterously superimposes the beginning and the collapse of a relationship on one another, reflecting the way heartache often mingles with euphoria in memory. Its first verse recounts the romance’s promising start, while the second depicts its unfortunate but inevitable demise in brutal and unsparing terms:
When the silence came We were shaking, blind and hazy How the hell did we lose sight of us again? Sobbing with your head in your hands Ain’t that the way shit always ends? You were standing hollow-eyed in the hallway Carnations you had thought were roses, that’s us I’ll feel you, no matter what The rubies that I gave up
Again, Swift doesn’t harbor any ill will toward her ex; it’s simply a relationship that didn’t – couldn’t – work out in the end. But she does “wake with your memory over me/That’s a real fuckin’ legacy to leave.”
Then there’s “Anti-Hero,” as pure a distillation of the profound self-doubts and deep insecurities that fuel anxiety as can be found in popular music – or anywhere else, for that matter. It’s easily the best track on Midnights and stands as one of the finest songs Swift has yet written, an intimate and uncompromising examination of her own self-perceived flaws and shortcomings that strikes a raw nerve with those of us who have had to wrestle with anxiety at some point in our own lives. Swift’s visceral, self-lacerating lyrics play out against a dreamy sonic background, creating an ironic but emotionally and thematically compelling tension between the song’s music and its meaning.
Swift immediately worries in “Anti-Hero” that she doesn’t simply learn or grow from her experiences: “I have this thing where I get older, but just never wiser.” After all, she proclaims, she shouldn’t be “left to my own devices/They come with prices and vices” as she’ll invariably “end up in crisis.” She goes on to assert that she’ll “stare directly at the sun, but never in the mirror.” “It’s me, hi/I’m the problem, it’s me,” Swift declares in the chorus, noting that just about everyone agrees with her own savage self-criticisms. That’s of a piece with the irony that courses through and indeed defines the song; “Anti-Hero” is nothing if not an exercise in self-examination of the sort Swift claims she evades. But it’s also a remarkably perceptive observation of how anxious rumination works, how we paint inaccurate portraits of ourselves and let our “depression work the graveyard shift” as we brood over all the mistakes we think we’ve made over the course of our days, years, and lives.
Swift’s subtly affective vocals elevate “Anti-Hero” even further. A slight crack of her voice at the start of certain phrases, for instance, and slight quavers during particularly poignant lyrics leave listeners with the sense of a woman on the emotional edge. Her pitch lowers as she repeats “everybody agrees” during the song’s post-bridge section, as if she’s convincing herself that her worst critics are in fact right that she’s the problem.
“It must be exhausting always rooting the anti-hero,” Swift tells herself at the end of the chorus. It’s a line that’s directed as much toward her friends, family, and fans as much as herself – and also one that reflects the Swift’s prowess as a songwriter. Here as elsewhere, her lyrics contain multiple meanings, often obvious but rarely if ever contradicting one another and typically cohering together quite nicely. It’s impossible to praise “Anti-Hero” too highly; the song is simply that well written and executed.
A sense of anxiety – if not dread – pervades even some of the brighter songs on Midnights. “Snow on the Beach” avers (correctly) that “life is emotionally abusive” even as it describes, as Swift remarks elsewhere, “falling in love with someone at the same time as they’re falling in love with you.” Likewise, Swift gives her younger self sage counsel on “You’re On Your Own, Kid,” albeit advice marked by a gnawing sense of isolation and loneliness despite its underlying message of resilience.1 It’s something of an existential quandary; the “blood, sweat, and tears” needed to pursue her dreams were worth it, she says, and while she may be on her own, she’s “got no reason to be afraid” and “can face this.” There’s clearly a silver lining here, but it’s just as evident that life invariably leaves its fair share of scars and bruises when we actually try and live it.
No other track on Midnights so embodies Swift’s artistic purposes as “Midnight Rain,” a song that marries sparse, downbeat sonic textures with intense rumination about a youthful romance dashed on the rocks of incompatible life goals. As she relates,
He wanted it comfortable, I wanted that pain He wanted a bride, I was making my own name
Even when we accept the past for what it was, she reminds us, it can still possess us on rare occasions . “I guess sometimes we all get/Some kind of haunted, some kind of haunted,” Swift concludes in the outro, “And I never think of him/Except on midnights like this.”
Midnights soon begins to open up in sound and tone, with Swift slowly but surely navigating her way out of her own late-night hall of mirrors. A marked undertow of anxiety and angst still permeates the album’s remaining songs, but we can see the cracks of light that herald the inevitable dawn with each track. An alcohol-soaked conversation on “Question…?” presents something of a false start before Swift moves on to “Vigilante Shit,” a smoldering revenge fantasy that could have been lifted from 2017’s criminally underrated reputation.
Matters only truly begin to brighten up both sonically and lyrically with “Bejeweled,” Swift’s shiny, bubbly anthem to breaking away from a romantic partner who took her for granted. “I polish up real nice,” she says as she heads out for a night on the town. “What’s a girl gonna do?/A diamond’s gotta shine.” On the ethereal “Labyrinth,” Swift expresses the self-protective anxiety involved in picking oneself up and moving on after the end of a relationship all while remaining open to the possibility of a new one:
It only feels this raw right now Lost in the labyrinth of my mind Break up, break free, break through, break down You would break your back to make me break a smile
Stomach-churning metaphors of elevators and airplanes capture the dizzy, nauseous sensation of vaulting from one relationship into another – or indeed any other leap from a familiar situation to a new and uncertain one.
“Karma,” on the other hand, represents the most upbeat and unabashedly radiant track on Midnights, with Swift confidently accepting all that fate throws her way. “Karma is the breeze in my hair on the weekend/Karma’s a relaxing thought/Aren’t you envious that for you it’s not?” she reports with impressive self-assurance. It’s another conspicuous instance of amor fati, the philosophical “love of fate,” making an appearance in Swift’s recent albums – one that’s made all the more attractive by the song’s dazzling, video game-style synthesizers and steady, reliable backbeat.
But it’s on the album’s last two songs that Swift finally takes her listeners back to the daylight, returning to the unconditional acceptance and intimacy she seeks in an ideal romantic partner – a desire that surfaced all the way back on “Lavender Haze.” She divulges and defines her deepest romantic longings on “Sweet Nothing,” the album’s delicate and affectionate penultimate track with faint musical echoes of Lover’s “It’s Nice to Have a Friend.” Accompanied by an electric piano and little else for much of the song, Swift lets her significant other know that she loves him because “all that you ever wanted from me was sweet nothing.” In the face of incessant external criticism, she can open up and “admit that I’m just too soft for all of it.” He gives her shelter from the hurricane that rages all around her, even though she knows she can never give him the same measure of peace in return.
On the equally intimate but much more buoyant “Mastermind,” however, Swift’s anxieties seep back in. She feels she has to plot and scheme to win over the object of her affection – “I’m only cryptic and Machiavellian ‘cause I care,” she professes – but he sees through her machinations and “knew the entire time.” It’s “the first time I’ve felt the need to confess” her romantic intrigues, tacitly acknowledging that they don’t really matter all that much.
It’s remarkable just how open Swift is about her own relationship in her music, given how justifiably private she’s been about it over the years. As she lets informs us on “Paris” – one of the vault tracks released with the album – that “romance is not dead if you keep it just yours.” That she’s willing to reveal so much about herself, her insecurities, and her personal life in her songwriting and music testifies not just to the intense sense of intimacy she’s forged with her listeners over the years but the premium she places on music as a mode of raw emotional exposure and personal expression. As Swift herself remarked in a recent interview, writing songs about “pain or grief or suffering or hard things you go through in life” offers a way to “suck the poison out of a snakebite.”
As stellar as Midnights is in its own right, then, it’s important to take a step back and appreciate Swift and her music in the moment – not years or decades after the fact, as has been the case with a number of artists in recent years. She taps into the most basic and universal elements of the human condition, especially our shared desire for emotional connection and intimacy. Her supremely confessional music gives her listeners an opportunity to share our own vulnerabilities and insecurities, offering us a chance to clearly see our common humanity and shared predicament.
For its own part, Midnights certainly takes us on an introspective odyssey. It’s a journey that demonstrates that our emotional cages are almost entirely mental and self-made – and that we’ve got the wherewithal to break out of them. After all, midnights always give way to the dawn.
On this song and “Midnight Rain,” it’s clear that Swift lacks the sort of complicated affection that artists like Prince and Bruce Springsteen had for their own hometowns and states.