Review Summary: 13 songs, 44 minutes, 8,293.54 pats on the back
Taylor Swift has done well from her dizzying range of concurrent guises. She’s a superstar, an idol, a god; she's an ordinary person with ordinary anxieties, affections and heartbreaks. She’s a duality of symbols: on the one hand, a 2D caricature of superficial emotions and humdrum celebrity gossip; on the other, a gloriously visible model of success, aspiration and candour for young women the world over. She caters to the latter and indulges the former; both thrive. In the midst of all this, her voice is savvy and polyvalent; the traditional Taylor Swift experience has always been less about any individual image and much more about the way she interpolates between them. She draws on every
angle to spin her personal experience into real-time adventures, and it’s testament to her storytelling talents that the momentum of her self-fashioning camouflages the fact that the specific details of whichsoever lovelife drama/celebrity beef aren’t nearly as interesting as she (or the tabloids) makes them out to be.
Where’s the scope for growth in all this? The entire run of Red
can be crudely (though not unfairly) reduced to a revolving door of A-lister references, character assassinations and moments of personal reflection that, nine times out of ten, find themselves firmly in the orbit and/or aftermath of her latest boydisaster, all of which is clad in whatever pop palette best anticipated the zeitgeist. 2020’s Folklore
were a notable shift in this regard, stepping into a series of character vignettes and 3rd person mini-narratives that, if far from Swift’s most musically engaging material, were at least a step forward into more mature and, dare I say, less self-centred writing. Swift has been repeatedly hailed as one of the great songwriters of our time; whether or not her work lives up to these claims, she had at least begun to incline her pen in more encouraging directions.
This is precisely why her latest effort Midnights
is such a frustratingly familiar step backwards. Where once Taylor-on-Taylor (this album’s only real lyrical standpoint) was charged with the electricity of a live news report, here we are shut in a room with a TV, a stack of well-worn videotapes, and Ms. Swift’s unabating live commentary thereon. For all the loved-up, queerbaiting opener “Lavender Haze” grounds the album in a languid version of the here-and-now, the majority of its tracks come off as revised memoirs of episodes already well-chronicled, replete with recycled melodies, tepid choruses and laboured intertexts galore.
For lack of a better word, it’s dull
. The subtext of this record is rich for those firmly invested in Swift’s personal narratives but, perhaps for the first time, outright irrelevant for anyone else: an epilogue for her Tom Hiddleston era (“Midnight Rain”)? A glimpse of words left unsaid to Mr. Could-Have-Been in the wake of some (likely) teenage houseparty (“A Question…”)? None of these command stakes or intrigue outside of Swift’s personal bubble, and her music is reticent to transform them into a broader appeal this time. Returning collaborator Jack Antonoff is roped back in to dish out a little pop gloss, yet his production is almost provocatively passive, deferential to Swift’s lyricism at every turn and unprepared to add the nod at the larger-than-life that so many of these tracks desperately need - its narratives are self-absorbed to the point of disconnect, rarely reaching for hooks or danceability as a proxy for a common tongue.
’ missteps make it clearer than ever what Swift’s earlier albums lacked: meaningful self-awareness (something “Anti-Hero” misplaces for self-caricature), description outside of the confines of cliché and kitsch (“Snow On The Beach” combines both to rather muted effect) and a willingness to complement her obvious vocal talents with distinctive delivery or inflection (“Labyrinth”’s verses show great promise here, recalling Folklore
’s ethereal highlight “Epiphany”, and yet the rest of the song is all too keen to backslide into commercial deja entendus).
Most awkward of all are the grudge songs: “Vigilante Shit” recalls Evermore
’s delicious murder ballad “No Body No Crime” and uses that lyrical style as a springboard for (erm) a high-stakes drama in which she masterminds arch-nemesis Scooter Braun’s divorce and subsequent downfall. The pettiness here comes bereft of a single good hook, and Antonoff’s mechanical stabs at menacing synth-bass do little to cushion the tedium; the result is a platform-as-megaphone antic better reserved for Insta disses than for putative songcraft. “Karma” seems to take similar shots at Braun in a manner more cohesively cloaked in pop trappings, yet its venom is too contrived not to add a sour hue to Swift’s self-congratulatory overtones. Its colourless melodies offer little resistance to this impression.
At its best, however, Midnights
is an evocative snapshot of the weight and consequence of years of emotional turbulence and public scrutiny. “Maroon” is foremost in this regard: if its ambivalent revision of “Red”’s colour symbolism is a little on-the-nose at first, its palpable emotional grit and thoughtful retrospectives prove more than enough to warrant this. It comes replete with the record’s strongest set of melodies and a high watermark production-wise for its moody synth-pop. “You’re On Your Own, Kid” is similarly convincing with its overview of the vulnerability, trauma and isolation that accompany life in the spotlight, maintaining personal distance where appropriate and dropping its guard at precisely the right moments. I hosted parties and starved my body / Like I’d be saved by a perfect kiss
is a thoroughly disarming line that should
exemplify the introspective tone the album reaches for. The reality of this is repeatedly undermined by such trope-riddled rambles as “Bejeweled”’s bafflingly stilted Familiarity breeds contempt / don't put me in the basement / when I want the penthouse of your heart
, but there are enough such flashes of concerte depth to vindicate the record’s retrospective premise.
Said premise ultimately proves more opportune for an actual memoir than a conceptually-oriented pop record, however. Midnights
is the kind of album that could only come from an artist accustomed to having the entire world’s ear; its odds of broadening Swift’s audience or appeal are minimal, but both are already so respectively vast and entrenched that its commercial success can be taken as granted. One thing is subtly new, however: where once we were spammed with endless titillations of the New Taylor, whoever she happened to be that year, here the guise of Same-Old-Taylor is resplendent for the first time (albeit with a few fresh insights). Its autobiographical reel is true to every trope established within her work, with but one exception: “Anti-Hero”’s assertion that Swift’s sights are set on the sun and not the mirror. The two have always been one and the same for her; why bother to pretend otherwise? Swift is her own chief focus and her own flagship product. She is her own universe, her own ecosystem, her music industry and her own critical standard. She is one of the privileged few who can invent the rules of her own game as she plays it, and boy does she like to win.