1989 came and went with Taylor Swift delivering a defining statement as a pop star. We heard and saw the fire slowly growing since “I Knew You Were Trouble” off Red. But after that, we started to hear her cool down with the electronic quirks from Reputation, which we continued to see with the electronic-focused tracks of her subsequent album Lover. Taylor Swift seems to come across as creatively stunted when given beats/production that emboldens a chance for Swift to go beyond linear synth-pop. Midnights, Swift’s latest album, seems to express a happy medium where she can flex beautifully over chill-out electronica production. Unfortunately, after a specific point midway Swift starts to come across as creatively stunted on the lyrical end, losing that spark that makes the first half such a breezy, good vibe. Comparatively, a modest disappointment, Midnights is a step back for Swift, exchanging rich text with rich sounds that outshine the writing. It left me feeling like it was missing that special spark we heard predominantly in the first half.
Midnights is this conceptually driven album that revolves around dreams, nightmares, etc., as Taylor Swift’s creative juices begin to flow post-midnight on sleepless nights. But it isn’t always there. Per usual, Swift is developing these reflective stories, hypotheticals that stumble in the second half, either from the writing or melodic choices that Swift makes. We first hear it as she turns the page with “Vigilante Shit.” Swift has done this type of song before on “No Body, No Crime” with Haim; however, that track had nuance, and “Vigilante Shit” feels like a poor extension of the former. From there, you get shimmers of the downward spiral Midnight turns. “Labyrinth” sees Swift tackling themes of heartbreak and growth past them, though it isn’t as gripping, and Antanoff’s backing vocals add little depth to the already simple written song. Surrounding the shard stumbles along the way, the production stays consistent with sonic motifs, particularly from the low pitches from the synthesizers, Mellotrons, and Wurlitzers.
Throughout the album, it does leave an interesting impression, though not negative or positive. Midnights is Swift’s 6th album working with Jack Antanoff, a fantastic musician/producer; however, the mystique loses fizzle after a while. So your first thought could be, “when do we get an original project without Antanoff, add a different personality behind the instruments and boards. Though the carbonation lasts longer for Midnights, Swift’s and Antanoff’s writing isn’t as captivating with tracks like “Bejeweled” and “Karma.” “Bejeweled” never feels like an individual product, taking cues from past pop hits by Swift. It treads familiar water over this crisp electronica beat that tackles the idea of shimmer as a sound. “Karma” doesn’t have excellent writing, and with oblique melodies, it becomes more of an afterthought in the long run. In “Labyrinth,” the focus is on the atmosphere, but the random drop near the end, though simple and effective elsewhere, doesn’t have that same impact as if you coasted through a track that emphasized more of an emotional core.
The production of Midnight takes from ideas from three “musical eras” of Taylor Swift, the synth linings of 1989, the electronic intricacies of Reputation, and the lyrical complexities of Folklore/Evermore. However, the height of it comes with potent first from “Lavender Haze” to “Questions…?.” Taylor Swift isn’t relying too much on whimsy and fantasy, like confronting people with her boyfriend Karma, instead reflecting on growth. In the blissful “Maroon,” she reflects on a love story that isn’t sparking with youthful fire and rather a humbling tale of togetherness and loss. The use of maroon as the defining color boasts the complexities of its story, like the color itself, complex hues of brown and red reflecting the complex dynamics of a relationship as they express beyond pure honesty. As it is with most of Swift’s songs on Midnight, themes reflect love through different purviews, culminating in varying lessons learned and emotions exhumed.
“You’re On Your Own, Kid” has us listening to a tale of a young person yearning for love, as if it’s this end all, be all; a crutch if you will. As she wistfully drifts into the night, the detailed writing and resonant melodies open your mind to the emotional truthfulness that hits our protagonist in the song. It continues to transfix you like the tracks that precede it. “Anti-Hero” brings forth the past eras of Swift–ones I’ve mentioned before–the livelier synths of 1989, electronic tones like “Delicate” from Reputation, and the lyrical complexities of the Folklore. It isn’t loquacious, and the auditory hand that grips you closer is tender and smooth, unlike the delivery of later songs. Fortunately, after the mediocrity in most of the second half, Swift grounds back into reality and offers something unique with the last two tracks, particularly “Sweet Nothing.” “Sweet Nothing” is instrumentally simple, mirroring her relationship with Joe Awelyn, deconstructing the importance of understanding and growth–she has finally found someone who hasn’t cared about the fame that comes with dating Swift.
Midnights is a minor step back for Taylor Swift, but it isn’t this albatross that fails to hit the mark. Swift came with direction; however, that won’t always constitute a great album. Though linear and coherently consistent, it doesn’t get elevated to the degree past albums have been, specifically 1989 and Folklore. There is a lot to like here, with some solid repeat appeal. Unfortunately, it left me yearning for something more, especially as I sat there listening to Swift sing and elevate the idea of karma to people from her past.