I remember watching Taylor Swift’s New York University commencement address and thinking, “This is new.” Throughout the speech, she drew back the curtain and provided an unvarnished, somewhat self-loathing look at herself, in her most vulnerable form. She said, “I know I sound like a consummate optimist, but I’m really not. I lose perspective all the time. Sometimes everything just feels completely pointless. I know the pressure of living your life through the lens of perfectionism.” In a way only Taylor Swift can do, she converted her life’s journey through being one of the most recognizable people on planet Earth into relatable, beautifully worded advice for newly minted NYU grads. Toward the end of the speech, she said, “Scary news is: You’re on your own now. Cool news is: You’re on your own now,” and then went on to say, “As long as we are fortunate enough to be breathing, we will breathe in, breathe through, breathe deep, breathe out. And I’m a doctor now, so I know how breathing works.” Great advice, right?
In reality, looking back, all of us should have caught on that this was the beginning of a new Taylor Swift era, which is how her albums are typically described given that she promotes a reinvented aesthetic with each release. Instead of red lipstick and bangs, we got vulnerability, laying the groundwork for Midnights, her latest album released on Friday, October 21. Mastermind that she is – pun intended, as this is the finale of Midnights – she turned her public image on its head starting with the NYU commencement speech. On the new album, the fifth track is called “You’re on Your Own, Kid” and in “Labyrinth,” she uses the exact phrase: breathe in, breathe through, breathe deep, breathe out. Talk about Easter eggs.
Midnights represents a new turn in the evolution of Taylor Swift, which we’re privileged to witness in real-time. Although at first listen some may say it feels a lot like 1989, her GRAMMY Album of the Year-winning, synth-forward masterpiece from nearly a decade ago, its sound shares a lot of similarities with reputation, which was critically panned upon release. Overall, the Midnights aesthetic may have a more kindred spirit in R&B, where bass beat and synthesizer create a framework for each song. Throughout the record, instrumentals keep the beat and create a backdrop but do little else, while her vocals create the melody – a choice that is unlike much of her previous work. Consider “You Belong with Me” going way back to Fearless, where the bouncy guitar and banjo form the hearty foundation of the song. Even as recent as folklore and evermore, Taylor was bringing together vocals and instrumental to create the overall effect. The hallmark of “betty” is the harmonica and undulating guitar lines. Even on “tolerate it” from evermore, emphatic and dramatic piano playing is central to the song’s impact. Yet here on Midnights, we see Taylor relying more on her vocal span to impress the listener – which is overwhelmingly successful. Truthfully, I found myself drawn to the songs that felt more like pop, such as “Karma” and “Bejeweled,” but all 13 songs on the original album are nearly perfect.
So let’s talk about the options for the albums she released on October 21. At exactly midnight, Midnights (an explicit version) was released, and then later in the day she put out Midnights (3 am Edition). If you’re wondering which album to listen to, I strongly recommend the original. Why? Well, first, we get Taylor singing words like “fuck” and “shit” again, which will never not be surprising. But I also found the additional seven tracks on 3 am – which she has positioned as being akin to the Vault tracks on her “Taylor’s Version” albums – were the weakest of the 20. Across her work, I can count on one hand the number of songs I skip when I put her music on shuffle. Unfortunately, I would pass on nearly all of the extras on the 3 am album.
Let’s talk about the winners on Midnights, of which there are many.
The album opens with “Lavender Haze,” a nod to a 1950s-era phrase for being madly in love that Taylor says she first heard on Mad Men. Throughout the album, the themes of questioning gender roles, vulnerability, and giving new meaning to an idiom crop up, and the opening track of Midnights sets the stage for these subjects. Of speculation regarding her relationship with her beau Joe Alwyn, she sings, “All they keep asking me / is if I’m gonna be your bride / the only girl they see / is a one-night or a wife.” Here she’s citing the “angel and the whore” complex as being the basis for how women are perceived, and the key takeaway from the song is that she’s not interested in being put in a box. Her reference to “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” is recurring in the chorus, where she sings “I’m damned if I do give a damn what people say / no deal / the 1950’s shit they want from me / I just wanna stay in the lavender haze.” (Side note: It wasn’t immediately clear to me that her use of “don’t threaten me with a good time” from “London Boy” and “You play stupid games, you win stupid prizes” from “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” both from Lover, weren’t original lyrics; I should brush up on American idioms, I guess.) The song is an awesome album opener, consistent with how Taylor stacks tracks on her previous work.
“Maroon” is a sensual second track, imbuing a visceral experience of the subject matter through the use of color and vignettes of human experience. I liked this track even better when I heard it playing at Target.
Because she is a mastermind – and we’ll get to that later – she made the lead single “Anti-Hero,” perhaps the most genius track on the entire album. Given that this song may be one of the most revealing representations of her internal self, I was surprised to see it listed as the third track, rather than track five, which is typically where she includes the most emotionally evocative song on all of her albums. We all know anti-heroes, the Batmans of the world, who are a little bit villainous but also somehow supposed to be the character you’re rooting for in a story and in life. She opens the track to leave no doubt to the listener that she is the “anti-hero“ in question: “I have this thing where I get older, but just never wiser / midnights become my afternoons / when my depression works the graveyard shift / all of the people I’ve ghosted stand there in the room.” When we get to the chorus, she’s even more forward: “It’s me / hi / I’m the problem, it’s me.” Throughout this song, we see her careful songwriting on full display, and my favorite line, also from the chorus, is, “I’ll stare directly at the sun, but never in the mirror.” How devastating. She closes the chorus with blatant self-loathing, which she has said was central to the development of this album: “It must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero.” This is not the Taylor Swift from the Red era whose biggest challenge was getting a guy with an ironic keychain to find her funny, and what’s interesting to note is that we may have seen glimpses of this look in reputation, where she was consumed by her fall from grace. In contrast, her past three albums – Lover, folklore, and evermore – have shied away from personal self-reflection in subject matter. It seems her unvarnished truth has been gestating for some time.
On “Snow on the Beach,” which feels like you’re ensconced in a snow globe dreamscape, she collaborates with Lana Del Ray. This song is a vibe in itself, but I wish we got a bit more of Lana’s voice on it.
“You’re on Your Own, Kid” is a humming, fast-paced melody where she reckons with being in the public eye and vulnerable for the world to see. For me, this song’s bridge – something Taylor is an expert at writing – is the best on the album, where she delineates with brutal honesty what she’s done to get to where she is today (perhaps unnecessarily): “I hosted parties and starved my body / like I’d be saved by a perfect kiss / the jokes weren’t funny, I took the money / my friends from home don’t know what to say.” But we get some redemption at the end of the bridge, where she sings, “Everything you lose is a step you take / so make the friendship bracelets, take the moment and taste it / you’ve got no reason to be afraid.” These declarations feel an awful like her NYU commencement speech, just sayin’. By the end of the song, it’s evident that having been on her own is what has created the success she experiences today and believing in that is all it takes.
Like so many of the songs on Midnights, “Midnight Rain” picks up on the vulnerability theme, too. This track is strong but not a favorite of mine.
The song “Question…?” also takes on the matter of gender roles and how these archetypes affect relationships in reality. “It was one drink after another / fuckin’ politics and gender roles / and you’re not sure and I don’t know / got swept away in the grey / I just may like to have a conversation.”
I’ll skip over “Vigilante Shit,” because it isn’t one of my favorites from the album, but it’s worth noting that this song also alludes to the topics of making an idiom her own and gender roles.
“Bejeweled” is one of my favorite songs because it’s sprightly and fun, and I love the way she sounds on it. In a way we haven’t seen before, Taylor Swift is owning that she’s awesome on this track. The chorus goes: “Best believe I’m still bejeweled / when I walk in the room / I can still make the whole place shimmer.” Although “Anti-Hero” spotlights her self-loathing tendencies, on “Bejeweled,” we see Taylor embracing her self-confidence while doing so unabashedly, which is another dimension of the vulnerability that’s at the album’s core. I find her approach here intriguing because, of course, she’s nearly perfect, given her career accomplishments to date, yet we’ve rarely heard about her celebrating herself. (Maybe the haters disagree.) “I polish up real nice” – indeed.
“Labyrinth” reminds me of “epiphany” from folklore due to its ethereal sound. Here is where she uses the “breathe” lyric, which matches the airy feel of the song. She confronts vulnerability in the chorus, where she sings, “Oh no, I’m falling in love…” This is in stark contrast to the vast majority of her oeuvre where falling in love was her primary objective.
“Karma” is up there with “Anti-Hero” for me, and this song is just genius. We’ve long known the concept of karma is fascinating to Taylor Swift. In the wake of the Kanye/Kim debacle from many years ago, she released “Look What You Made Me Do” as the lead single from reputation – which, as an aside, kind of misrepresented what this album is about – and she sings, “The world moves on, another day, another drama, drama / but not for me, not for me, all I think about is karma.” So it’s particularly refreshing to hear that Taylor Swift feels like karma is on her side these days. She uses metaphor throughout the chorus of “Karma” to depict her affinity for this concept, as part of her newly formed self: “’Cause karma is my boyfriend / karma is the breeze in my hair on the weekend / karma’s a relaxing thought / aren’t you envious for you it’s not?” I love how she makes karma – something that’s often discussed as the repercussions of wrongs done – something that buoys her. True growth.
She collaborated with her boyfriend on “Sweet Nothing,” which is a beautiful track, but not at the top of my list for stars of this album. This bridge is likely the most vulnerable of all songs, or may be tied with the bridge on “Mastermind.”
Her final track, “Mastermind,” is pretty brilliant. How many articles have been written about Taylor Swift in which she’s been described as something of a mastermind? This one from The New Yorker – from a hundred years go – pretty much makes the case. In this song, Taylor uses the idea of mastermind to describe her machinations with snagging her partner, but I think it’s pretty clear she knows she’s a mastermind in all things and just chose to keep it circumspect on this track. She touches on gender roles again in this song, when she sings, “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.” She’s saying that she has no choice but to be proactive given society’s expectations for women most of the time. Somehow she even throws in the word “Machiavellian” and makes it work perfectly with her meter and melody on this one. The song is pure genius.
From what I can tell, most critics have highly scored Midnights. The 13 core songs are tightly wound and reveal a Taylor Swift some may have never seen. That is, those who didn’t watch her NYU commencement address.