Her most radical, self-assured experimentation yet
Lucy Harbron
09:40 21st October 2022

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It’s no wonder Taylor didn’t release a single. Until the second of release, she didn’t give her fans a single teaser of a single note, because even a second would have given it away. Even a taste would have given Midnights away as her most radical shift yet and the strongest reinvention we’ve seen from Taylor Swift in the most honest way. No longer with any need for gimmicks or rebrands, the music of Midnights speaks for itself. Calling it a return to pop doesn’t do it justice, this is a total transcendence, taking every lesson learnt from 1989 to now, and elevating it.

It requires the context of 1989 as a piece of pioneering pop. Without 1989, we wouldn’t have Dua Lipa, we wouldn’t have Rina Sawayama or this era of pure pop that isn’t cheesy. Leading the way for a type of pop that can be exceptionally written with lyrics that demand attention while letting you dance – you can’t forget the forerunning Taylor Swift has been doing for a decade now. And on Midnights, she’s sprinting back to the front of the crowd with so much ease it’s incredible.

There was no need for any makeover or new haircut; instead, Midnights proves the power Taylor has even in casual experimentation. Taking on a whole new sound and doing it in knitted jumpers, embracing something radically different with the strongest sense of self-knowledge yet; you can feel Taylor at home in herself on this album. No longer needing to rely on characters or dramatic eras to switch up, she sings it herself – “that’s a real fucking legacy to leave.” After proving her domineering talent in country, pop, indie-folk and now alt-synth lanes; she can be whoever and whatever she wants to be. And deciding to dip her toes into synth-pop pools and ending with a result so different, so polished and so beautifully strange is the biggest testament to her talent and dedication to unending development.

"Using heavy experimentation to tell the story of her deepest introspection yet, it’s like you can hear her laughing, taking sharp turns away from what anyone would ever expect from her."

It's Prince-esque. A reference so often applied and so rarely understand, it feels right for Midnights. From the opening of ‘Midnight Rain’ to the quivering synths on ‘Vigilante Shit’ or the vocal distortion on ‘Labyrinth’, their purposeful decisions made towards the weird and the all-encompassing. Just as we know Prince could’ve built an entire legacy on flawless classic pop and rock songs like ‘1999’ or ‘Purple Rain’, but he wasn’t content to. Moving through experimentation with a solid foundation of foolproof songwriting, more than any other artist at the moment, Taylor Swift seems to work in the same vein. She could have continued with the beloved soft elements of folklore, or returned to the radio-friendly Lover sound, but she didn’t. Seemingly taking lessons from recent collaborations with Justin Vernon as well as Jack Antonoff’s work with The 1975 – Midnights takes every major pop movement from the modern era to the 1980s, rips them all up and pieces them together in a distinctly Taylor way. Using heavy experimentation to tell the story of her deepest introspection yet, it’s like you can hear her laughing, taking sharp turns away from what anyone would ever expect from her.

But buried within this pop labyrinth is Taylor’s darkest work yet. Singing about murder and vision of her laughing from her, inspired by, in her words, “self-loathing”, ‘anti-hero’ especially dives deeper than ever into her psyche. Even after albums like the sharp vulnerability of folklore and evermore, Taylor discovers new levels of introspection, creating pop hits fuelled by unabridged, scathing self-critique without it becoming pastiche. Offering up a whole different way to communicate her own stories as well as universal relatable feelings of insecurity, anger and the personal, private ways sexism affects women, it would be foolish to shrug it off as purely a pop project.

Especially felt on the recently unveiled additional 7 "3 am tracks", ‘Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve’ steps forward as a powerful one, spiralling around trauma and memory in a much darker way than even ‘My Tears Ricochet’. Singing I regret you all the time / If clarity is in death, then why won't this die?... Living for the thrill of hitting you where it hurts/ give me back my girlhood, it was my first” – Taylor isn’t holding back on hurt delivering scathing commentaries through personal stories. Similar to the sharpness of ‘Bejeweled’, there’s a clear shift in the subject matter. No longer singing a romanticised take on hidden loves, she’s coming for the jugular of a society that demands even the most famous women in the world have to hide something to gain basic privacy and respect.

Emerging as the antithesis of Lover track ‘The Archer’, the prevailing mood of self-confrontation is this time told through candid and at points genuinely silly lyricism. With witticisms and phrasings so neat and sharp they could genuinely be Matty Healy quips (see: “Did you hear my covert narcissism / I disguise as altruism like some kind of congressman?”), even in the pop sound, this might be her wordiest album yet. Fully embracing the voice in all our heads that spirals toxicity to the nth point, Midnights as a concept album makes so much sense.

Fully embedded in its feelings, whether it be the dizzying love of ‘Sweet Nothing’ or the cutting anger of ‘Vigilante Shit’, every decision surrenders to the mood of the track. From the tone of the synths to the heavy-handedness applied to the guitars, it’s immersive as you dive into that hazy midnight moment where any little thought or feeling can take over. Especially felt in the heavenly harmonies of ‘Snow On The Beach’, Lana Del Rey’s vocals double down on the sleepy but not dream-like atmosphere – instead Taylor keeps you awake, tossing and turning in the throes of some big feelings. Holding your hand and walking you from love, to anger, to sadness, to hope and back, the one prevailing thread is that every feeling here is in its deepest, rawest form.

On her traditional track 5, that’s clearer than ever. Sonically completely different from the heart-wrenching ballad she usually delivers, ‘You’re On Your Own, Kid’ takes an alternative approach to the same point. A devastating offering about loneliness and isolation, including her first clear lyric about her struggles with eating disorders, this is a new type of track 5. No longer needing to cut herself open like some kind of musical trauma show, ‘You’re On Your Own, Kid’ displays sadness with a weirdly comforting edge, with the sense that she’s holding herself now.

Overwhelmingly, Midnights is a hard album to write about. Buried so deep in Taylor Swift lore, from the glitching easter egg wrapped up in the ‘Glitch’ Spotify canvas, to the slow unveiling of lyrics she’s been telling fans for years now – it’s an album that’s going to reveal itself more and more over the coming weeks, months, even years. Sampling Taylor’s Version re-recordings still to come, with fans spotting a moment of ‘Out Of The Woods’ on ‘Question…?’, there is so much more to discover about Midnights than any review will ever get deep enough into. As always, Taylor delivers an album made for her and her fan. Full of secret messages whispered between them, adding new chapters to stories they’ve known for years and sharing new ones in the form she feels comfortable with, Midnights is layered in every way. From the instrumental decision, purposeful phrasings and self-assured experimentation, Taylor Swift has delivered an album unlike anything else she’s ever made but levelling up everything prior.

Midnights is out now

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