Taylor Swift – Midnights: Review

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.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Taylor Swift – Red (Taylor’s Version)

It felt like only yesterday that, after years of listening to solo Taylor Swift songs instead of whole albums, I decided to sync up 2012’s Red in its entirety; it swept me away. In the early stages of her career, Taylor Swift tiptoed on a thin wire, which split conventions of pop and country and never left a sense of cohesion. Her music had this essence that evoked connectivity; she was the nerd; the shy outcast, the one who felt like her place in this world was with the stars, delivering messages that allowed many fans to evolve with her. And as we grew with her, we were there to understand her words and the ethereal production that hits you with a jab here, and a punch there, whenever Taylor Swift let herself be free of the mental constraints, which eventually gave us an absolute pop-banger with “I Knew You Were Trouble” while mesmerizing in other ways, whether it be the lyrics or the orchestration of instruments within the confines of the production.

As it was with Fearless (Taylor’s Version), the re-recordings of Red (Taylor’s Version) are definitively different from the originals, minimally changing a few notes to give each song brevity when contrasting both works. Red has the looseness that engulfs the flow of serotonin within us, giving listeners a sense of relatability as they filter through innate emotional outcries that barely scratches the surface of our reality. Instead, Red (Taylor’s Version), like Fearless (Taylor’s Version), offers a different perspective through complex layers Taylor Swift and Christopher Rowe apply to the previous production. It allows it to keep the same fragrance that attracted us to the original body of work, with the differences aligning with Taylor’s style today, specifically with the song from the vault. On the other side, Red (Taylor’s Version) is as much as mosaic as the original recordings, as Taylor bellowed her heartbreak into a vast array of styles, most of which suited her naturally. 

In essence, Red (Taylor’s Version) is more polished and better mixed; the hiccups come from a change in age, reflective in her voice, as some of her signature and youthful-fun chuckles/laughs don’t feel as innocently fun. Fortunately, it doesn’t hinder the powerhouse impact Red (Taylor’s Version) brings to the table, like the elevated string production on her Country-Folk-Pop leveled variations. It hit me as soon as the first few strings began playing on “State Of Grace (Taylor’s Version)” – the seismic percussion weighs with the same gravitas as it did on Red; however, the bravado from the electric guitar boosts its arena-rock-core. In 2012, the Taylor Swift tinted headphones were real, and her voice didn’t contain that dynamic oomph to fit the heavy notes with the song goes rock. It’s effervescent throughout, weighing in on these heavier components, like the pop-rock anthem “Red (Taylor’s Version),” where Taylor truly captures our ears.

Throughout Red (Taylor’s Version), there are small elements that perfectly embolden the differences of the re-recordings beyond Taylor Swift’s matured voice. The central pop songs don’t necessarily have the heart that Taylor had at a time, and songs like “We’re Never Getting Back Together (Taylor’s Version),” where it lacks the innocence that made it fun; she was glowing with booming emotions, and now it’s there and more reflective, without disturbing the 130-minute journey this album is. And it may be hyperbolic to say, with the consistent streak of releases from Taylor after Lover, that Red (Taylor’s Version) is worth every minute. It never cuts ties with the infectious details that warped our minds, like “I Knew You Were Trouble (Taylor’s Version),” where the beat drop struts more subtly, and it’s okay that the pop-centric songs aren’t that showy this time around. 

The modest attention to the hyper-stylized pop songs allows Taylor Swift to shine with others like “Starlight” and “Stay Stay Stay,” whose vibrance comes with Taylor’s eagerness to record and the fun the exhumes from her vocals and the subtleness of the backing vocals. And instead of getting these glossy electronic sounds, synths, all before the dubstep-like drop hits in “I Knew You Were Trouble (Taylor’s Version),” we get these focused pop-songs that play with tempos and beats. It is like “Stay Stay Stay,” which has been an undisputed heavy rotation song from Red, and Red (Taylor’s Version) subdues the poppy-bubbly nature of her vocals, and there’s a different cadence to it. It’s unlike other pop songs on the album, with its fun-fast-paced tempo that blends varying strings, infectiously reeling you back in.

A lot of these songs, like “Starlight,” “Stay Stay Stay,” and “State Of Grace,” shoot to new levels, becoming better than the original. You can say similarly about the softer, slower Country/Rock songs, as they highlight the maturity of Taylor Swift’s songwriting like on “Begin Again” and “Sad Beautiful Tragic.” The former creates this larger than life setting to immerse yourself in as you’re placed in Taylor’s shoes, singing about that transitional shock from realizing her new love is an opposite composite of her last love; the latter speaks on love with dualities beneath words and actions and equating them sad beautiful tragic. Within the vault, we are reminded of this as Taylor covers songs she has co-written, like “Better Man” by Little Big Town and “Babe” by Sugarland, originally featuring Taylor as well.

Closing Red (Taylor’s Version), the songs from the vault are radiant, infectious, and a bit too much Ed Sheeran. Unlike “Everything Has Changed,” “Run” doesn’t captivate you like the others, with a direct ballad that wears thin further along it goes. But her duets with Phoebe Bridgers and Chris Stapleton offer more than “Run,” with each song containing a beautiful synchronization of performances from both artists, especially Chris Stapleton, who blends his tenor beautifully with Taylor’s light-lyric-soprano. However, “Message In A Bottle (Taylor’s Version)” and “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version) (10 Minutes Version)” are what immediately captivated me to hit that repeat button multiple times. The latter is what fans have been anticipating, as the original is lauded as Taylor’s best, and deservingly so. It’s the apex of Taylor – the way she can elevate levels of trivial detail into an emotionally complex and wrenching story about heartache. The 10-minute version isn’t an improvement, but it has a resounding impact the more it progresses. It beautifully closes the album building her landmark in our lives, delivering constant tears flowing down my eyes. 

It’s not wild to say or think that Red (Taylor’s Version) is better than the original, as it encapsulates the varying feelings that flow through Taylor’s mind during its creation. Betrothed by her feelings, it builds upon character, giving us a tender and fractured look into her mind as she dealt through her emotions and heartache. All 130 minutes, we’re against the ropes, feeling our highs and lows in beautiful synchronization from start to finish.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

Fearless (Taylor’s Version) Is A Beautiful Journey Through Old Memories: Review

It’s emotionally conflicting how reflective music can be; whether through life-connections that coincide with the teenage angst within or the nuance from an era where a difference in the music comes from the change in lyrics. Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is an amalgamation of these senses and more, as she takes us on part 1 of her journey of re-recording her first six albums to retain the masters of her first six albums. This new version brings matured vocal performances that carry personal-emotional experiences from the career and life she has had since the release of Fearless in 2008. However, this version is not that different from the original, outside minimal tweaks and maturity in her voice that adds a new perspective to the writing and production, with beautifully re-polished mixes.

Taylor Swift’s vocal maturity underlies her recent vocal performances, adding a different feel on the surface. It maintains the steady-balance it had on the genre spectrum, never truly feeling defined by one genre and further allowed her to expand her creative mind. Behind the voice and styles you could hear a part of her aspire to make music that isn’t held back by genre-conventions. A lot of her soft-sung material creates new depth as her voice brings in that sense of reflection and brings the harbored memories from when you first heard these songs. This makes songs like “Fifteen,” “The Way I Loved You,” and “Today Was a Fairytale,” more impactful because the perspective leads you through a nostalgia trip where one can dream about non-adulting things and focus on those dreamy aspirations like a fairytale romance or your future aspirations. The latter of that trio of songs being one is a definitively better version, but the youthful vocals from 2010 adds more characterization to the story. 

One constant that differentiates the two versions is the mainline producer. Nathan Chapman did the production and the harmonization, while Christopher Rowe, from Taylor’s band, did the work this time around. It shows, as they bring back most of her band to repurpose their parts; which in turn adds distinct layering that reminds of the old, but you’d rather stick with the new. You can hear it from the beginning as they play at the same pace – with more nuance on “Fearless” and “Change.” It makes her past singles standout out more on the surface allowing for many, a good cry. This was a sentiment I’ve come to know very well with the duet “Breathe,” featuring the incomparable Colbie Caillat, whose redone vocals brought a happy tear to my eye.

Overall, the production/engineering/mixing are slight improvements on the many rough patches the original version of Fearless had on some of the harmonization layers and mixing, but it was never much of a deterrent. These songs, like “Superstar,” and “Jump Then Fall,” don’t hit that dynamic threshold she has shown to hit on many occasions, but that may be due to the impactful nature behind the vocal performance, that at times feels jaunty and roots-like in the string section and that stands out more than the whole. This has been a constant thing that made these tracks less desirable at the time for me, and still does today. And for the most part, there are no real underlying differences in the construction and notes that are in sequence on the production, but there is a more authentic and rustic overlay that brings a different light to the way we intake these songs.

Amongst the 19-tracklist of the original tracks on Fearless: Platinum Edition are new songs she had in the vault. These new songs bring back her two collaborators from Folklore and Evermore, Jack Antonoff and Aaron Dressner to create country – like orchestration/production for Taylor to deliver what ran through her mind at the time of writing. As evident with the inner angst in the writing, you could tell there were some pots she didn’t want to stir further. “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” co-produced by Jack Antonoff, trades a lot of country overtures and implements them subtly in the string section, allowing the percussion to commandeer the production and take it to some poppy heights. 

Fearless (Taylor’s Version) is like the refurbished product that got mislabeled as such. So when you get it and you find out it is a brand new product that was never on the floor you are beyond ecstatic. The unpacking feels like you are doing it in Taylor Swift’s presence and it begins to feel like a brand new album, based on the complexities in the layering with the new mixing it goes through. It doesn’t have that same youthful energy that she emboldens with her voice at the time. But as it is with growth, the voice will be different and that’s how it creates this feeling like it is something new.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

List: Ranking Taylor Swift’s Duets

Throughout Taylor Swift’s career she has had a wide range of duets with different artists she either associated with at the time or with an artist she is a huge fan of, like Bon Iver and The Nationals. She has had her fair share of flops in quality with the way these tracks turn out, but the vocals – for the most part – don’t falter in mediocrity; however the synchronization of the vocals are another story. This rankings looks at both overall construct of the vocals as they harmonize with each other and how complementary they are to the production.

13. Me! – Taylor Swift & Brendon Urie

This is an interesting duet, partially because it is one of those rare “bad” songs from Taylor Swift, and mostly because the vocal pitches don’t complement or contrast each other well. It’s one of the more poppy/lively productions, despite wrought, that Taylor has sung over, “Shake It Off” notwithstanding (because it just so damn great). Some of the production notes, like the overindulgent piano and synths, leave much to interpretation and questioning as Brendon Urie and Taylor lack vocal chemistry. Though it has lively production, it doesn’t have that same oomph and stylistic authenticity of “Shake It Off.” Though Taylor does her best, vocally, Urie is still as self reliant on putting the octane on the high pitch, more adjunct to his recent radio hit – at the time – “High Hopes,” and together it is way too meh.

12. Evermore – Taylor Swift & Bon Iver

Amongst the songs on Evermore, unfortunately, the title track doesn’t evoke the same oomph that the album had through its many intricate moments. It is unlike their previous duet, “Exile,” which used the strengths of both artists with slight nuance. “Evermore” is boring, for lack of a better term. Bon Iver’s vocals feel like they weren’t much there to grasp from emotionally, leading to moments you just don’t to latch onto.

The piano keys and guitar riffs of “Evermore” don’t have that same haunting atmosphere and it relies on falling into something more similar to standard folk/indie rock, as the broken down instrumental tries hard not to play third fiddle. The harmonization continues to show a trend of it working with fluidity, but that isn’t enough to save the track from the many problems it carries, specifically in the longish runtime.

11. Safe & Sound – Taylor Swift & The Civil Wars

This is another, modest, track coming from Taylor Swift that she curated for The Hunger Games film. It is broken down with a simple string melody and ghostly harmonization from each member of the Civil Wars, individually, on each verse. These harmonizations is the highlight of the track. It’s hard to dislike the nuanced arrangement, but it does teeter around a slow pacing that doesn’t feel fully invested in, particularly in how it is mixed. You’re just there waiting for any type of shift in momentum, but nothing ever comes out of it.

10. Everything Has Changed – Taylor Swift & Ed Sheeran

“Everything Has Changed” is honestly just fine. There isn’t much to it that makes me think that it is anymore than what you hear on a surface level, especially considering Ed Sheeran doesn’t sound fully “there” on it.. It may be one of the overall “good” (not great) tracks off Red, but when you compare it to the other duet on the album it falls beyond sub-par overall execution in both production and vocal melodies. It’s, in a way, a very typical-kind of duet most people could mirror, considering the basic piano keys.

9. I Don’t Wanna Live Forever – Taylor Swift & Zane

What starts as a middling and slow composition, grows into an elegant orchestration of vocal deliveries. They overshadow the very typical somber percussion that takes mood-influence from the film, Fifty Shades Darker, for which it was made for. Zayn and Taylor complement each other surprisingly well, considering the contrasting – base – range that both vocal pitches encompass. Unfortunately the track really only has gravitas when the production transitions between the first chorus and Taylor Swift’s solo vocals as the shifty percussion adds more color to an otherwise simple gothic-pop atmosphere.

8. Coney Island – Taylor Swift & The National

This song has definitely grown on me after some time, mostly because of the way Matt Berninger’s voice contrasts Taylor Swift’s over a beautiful string and piano arrangement. At the time it felt like a very yawn inducing track that fit the mold of Evermore, sonically. Though the production, at times, leads in some slight bland directions, the vocals from both artists boost the complexion on the track about separation. It is the best duet off Evermore, but that isn’t hard to accomplish when the title track featuring Bon Iver loses touch on the elements that made “Exile” so great.

7. You All Over Me – Taylor Swift & Maren Morris

Though some may think there is some recency bias, it should be known by now that most of the duets Taylor Swift has made don’t always have the greatest sequences in the production transitions. The way Taylor and Maren Morris blend their vocals together is reminiscent of the harmonizations that Nathan Chapman would implement to Taylor’s voice amplification and depth. Morris does that for Taylor this time around, while incorporating her own complementary twang – accents in her singing. 

Aaron Dressner of The National finds a beautiful way to meet two similar sounds, folk and country, halfway. The country/folk blend in guitar strings and percussion embolden the overall atmosphere more attune to the kind of ballad-like constructs that made Fearless such a momentous debut for Taylor Swift.

6. Lover (Remix) – Taylor Swift & Shawn Mendes

Unlike the unconventionality of Taylor Swift and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver’s vocal synchronization, Taylor and Shawn Mendes have a unique happy medium with the way they harmonize. However, as a song, there are many parts where it goes from being on a high to going down low in execution, like the moments where Shawn free forms – non verbal melodies – which comes off a bit extra. It is a beautifully designed duet that works more than it doesn’t, and particularly because Shawn Mendes complements Taylor Swift, vocally. On the bright side, the production maintains it’s elegant, melancholic guitar and piano-centric combo flowing with ease, but regular version of “Lover” is slightly better.

5. Half Of My Heart – John Mayer & Taylor Swift

The vibrant harmonizations match the simpleness of the melodic/melancholic acoustics, backing the neatly designed pop-rock track from John Mayer. “Half Of My Heart” is a solidly constructed song, from the luscious twang in Taylor’s voice to the verdant foundation of the pop overtones Mayer creates with his producers. “Half Of My Heart” delivers with finely tuned mixing, allowing both vocalists to bring their own bravado in their performances.

4. Breathe – Taylor Swift & Colbie Cailat

This beautiful guitar ballad brings the best of both worlds, as Colbie brings soft and elegant harmonizations to Taylor Swift’s melodies, specifically in the way she elongates the word for emphasis. Colbie Caillat has a voice from the heavens and her quaint summer innocence in her voice adds much to the pop-shy Taylor, who seems to take a lot of notes of the way Colbie creates her melodies, resonate of her work like “Bubbly,” and “Realize.” “Breathe” is part of the small collective of songs that transgress against the underlying quandary we had at the time; is she pop or is she country? This song, instrumentally bridges a gap more parallel to that of folk-pop with the somber guitar strings that conduct the tempo and rhythm of the rest of the production.

3. Two Is Better Than One – Boys Like Girls & Taylor Swift

This beautiful and timely piece of music-pop culture history, where the paradigm shift of emo-rock and pop-punk became more infused with pop rock, that the songwriting didn’t help imply context. It was also one of the few times we saw two genres of the opposite spectrum link and create a song together. This song or ballad is full of vocal decadence with the way they paint the emotional cues, specifically in the chorus. Before this, from Fearless, Taylor balanced pop sonic subtexts in some songs, like “You Belong With Me,” but this is her real first foray into pop without ever feeling derivative of underlying, wrought, emo/punk sub-texts. 

2. Exile – Taylor Swift & Bon Iver

The atmospheric nature that loomed over Taylor Swift’s sonic shift on Folklore brought about one of the greatest songs of 2020. And unlike the duet Taylor made with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver on the title track of Evermore, the song “Exile,” from Folklore, is a breath of fresh air. It brings varying degrees of lush and haunting-gospel like sonic execution in the production and vocal textures “Exile” works by incorporating all the aspects that usually embolden their vocal textures; specifically Justin Vernon, whose melodic baritone pitch orchestral amplification contrasts Taylor’s honeyed vocals. The focused piano keys adds atmospheric overtones, which allows the reverb to develop the haunting mood of a track more aligned with themes of separation, like Taylor slowly did from the country roots of Nashville and transitioned into pop. The added depth, vocally and thematically, brings this track forth with enough momentum it will leave you shivering.

1. The Last Time – Taylor Swift & Gary Lightbody

Simply put, “The Last Time” is emotionally draining. Though that doesn’t come as a surprise, considering Taylor Swift created this with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody and legendary rock producer Jacknife Lee. In a way, this acts as a precursor to some of the stylistic/sonic overtures of Folklore, specifically in the notes/sonic-influence she takes from the bands she happens to be huge on, aka folk-alternative rock. “The Last Time,” however, takes all these sonic undertones to bridge together the power ballad about a relationship cycle. The moody electric guitar riffs, builds the momentum of the story, while the piano invigorates the atmospheric surface.

Gary Lightbody’s baritone, like Justin Vernon’s, is a beautiful complement to Taylor’s middling soprano range. This allows for Taylor to find her own comfortability parallel to her partner’s delivery and together they created one of the best songs in Taylor’s whole discography.