It is wise not to read too deeply into thoughts that arrive at midnight—but try telling that to any self-respecting Taylor Swift fan. The Swiftie is a most ardent scholar, laden with theories, her interpretative goggles strapped on well before the appointed hour of an album’s release. In fairness, her vigilance has been conditioned, as Swift has admitted a penchant for leaving so-called Easter eggs in her music and elsewhere, hinting at things to come. “I think that it is perfectly reasonable for people to be normal music fans and to have a normal relationship to music,” she has said. “But if you want to go down a rabbit hole with us, come along, the water’s great.” Every seemingly innocent Instagram snapshot may be littered with clues, every trinket a sign, every number a symbol; every song, in turn, a decoder ring. Hunt and you will be rewarded—maybe. (After a Tiktok user identified a Wurlitzer piano in the cover art of Swift’s new album, “Midnights,” fans speculated, incorrectly, that Swift would be moving into a retro phase.) I’m a little lazier than that, myself. Prognostication wipes me out. Still, obedient poptimist that I am, when Swift told us, “Meet me at midnight,” teasing the Friday-morning album drop, I obliged. Three hours later, while I was very much asleep, Swift released seven additional songs as part of an extended “3am Edition.”
Swift released multiple albums in 2020 and 2021: “folklore” and “evermore,” a fraternal pair of pruned fables, plus rerecordings of “Fearless” (2008) and “Red” (2012), completed as part of an ongoing plan to acquire ownership of music made under contract with her old label. The brief period since has felt like a lull for Swift, an interregnum between artistic theses, which makes it an apt occasion for a looser concept album such as this. As the story goes, “Midnights” came together in a series of middle-of-the-night sessions with Swift and the producer Jack Antonoff. But the album’s name is metaphorical, conveying the spontaneous, restless headspace of nighttime thought, a conceit that might also explain away possible disunity among tracks. It is a “collage,” as Swift describes, “of intensity, highs and lows and ebbs and flows”—a mood board, perhaps—its pieces held together by Swift’s signature vocals, which morph and stretch themselves in interesting ways.
Much of what’s been said about Swift’s new versions of “Fearless” and “Red” has been concerned with control over craftsmanship and the value of songwriting—the preoccupations of Swift-as-businesswoman. But I have appreciated the new recordings as an opportunity to reacquaint myself with Swift the vocalist. In returning to “Fearless,” her sophomore album, which was originally released when she was eighteen, Swift has said that she wanted to make the recordings “very true to what I initially thought of and what I had initially written. But better. Obviously.” “Red” has been given the greater fanfare thus far, culminating with the extended “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) ” and an attendant music video that Swift has called a short film. Vocally, though, “Fearless” indexes the more impressive return, showing what results when rookie brass is warmed by the technique of a professional. Time has improved Swift’s talent for roleplaying, whether she’s emulating the timbre of her younger self or evoking, as she does on “Midnights,” her favorite emotional registers: giddiness, histrionics, hope, disrepair.
The new album over-all is sleek but not sparse—not as stadium as “State of Grace,” and not so far removed from “Delicate”—residing somewhere in the electronic pop of it all, and bearing the mark of Antonoff’s perpetual drum machine. Swift’s lyrics, as ever, invite interpretation. Fans are already speculating that “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve,” from the “3am” set, is about her once-upon-a-time romance with John Mayer. Yet listening to “Midnights” gave me the sensation of being released from the space between the lines to instead glide upon their surfaces.
The lyrics of a song like, for instance, “Anti-Hero” seem ripe for commentary, especially the irreverent chorus: “It’s me / Hi / I’m the problem, it’s me / At teatime / Everybody agrees.” On paper, this and other lines (“Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism like some kind of congressman?”) seem to offer a diagnosis of our titular character. But each verse of the song is bisected: aloft and lilting on one phrase and near monotonic the next, as though each disclosure comes parcelled with its own undercutting rebuttal. By the penultimate cycle of the chorus, Swift sounds weary from the effort. The words are syncopated, dragging, sighed out; “everybody agrees” ends on a hiss. And then the song snaps back into place, its pep suddenly restored. It’s not about revelation. Nothing has been learned, and what you gleaned does not matter: the circuit runs itself.
The music video, directed by Swift and starring herself as several concurrent good and worse versions of herself, underscores the point. It is literal to a fault, matching words to their corresponding images on cue. The bridge begins, “I have this dream my daughter-in-law kills me for the money,” and so the video pauses for a sketch of a funeral. Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Mike Birbiglia, and John Early play left-behind family members, hoping for a piece of the Swift estate only to find the will has left them thirteen cents. Canny students of their own mother’s hijinks, and perhaps knowing that thirteen is Swift’s lucky number, they imagine that this inheritance must be hinting at something. “There’s probably a secret encoded message that means something else,” one son says. They keep reading: “P.S. there’s no secret encoded message that means something else.” Do we take these winking lines at their word or dig for something deeper?
Elsewhere on the album, too, the impression is atmospheric rather than informative, affects translated into sound and converted back into feeling again. On the track “Snow on the Beach,” an awaited collaboration with Lana Del Rey, the two stars’ voices overlap and blend, playing with the dissolution of difference, a choice that has disappointed some mutual fans who expected the usual team-up energy of a pop feature. Other songs rely on stacked and reverb vocals (other Antonoff favorites), among them “Maroon” and “Dear Reader,” the latter of which is off of “3am.” The bonus tracks include three songs co-written and co-produced with Aaron Dessner, who also worked on several of the better tracks on “folklore” and “evermore.” Other collaborators: Zoë Kravitz and Swift’s boyfriend, Joe Alwyn, who is credited under the name William Bowery on the ditty “Sweet Nothing.” I am most caught by certain scattered bits: the breathy long “A” sounds on “Lavender Haze”; the rhyme of sorts of “party” and “bodies” on “You’re on Your Own Kid”; the lazy drag (an overt try-on of Billie Eilish) on “Vigilante Shit”; the seeming single word “karma-is” on “Karma”; and the sporadic f-bombs (“That’s a real fucking legacy”).
I’ve always maintained that Swift is incapable of writing a bad song. Certain dips in public satisfaction have, I think, tended to reflect less on the quality of her output than on our vacillating faith in pop music as a form of salvation. For example, it was unfair to saddle “Reputation,” released in 2017, with the baggage of the new Administration, as if the egoism of Swift’s lyrics were somehow emblematic of Trump’s. Nor was “folklore” a flight from pop, as others were eager to claim, so much as another case of Swift testing the elasticity of the genre she’s made home. In “Midnights,” she’s in a more settled place, squarely back in her pop element, yet still whetting her instrument. Fans will decode every inch of the album in a matter of time, I’m sure. “I swear,” Swift sings on the closer, “Mastermind,” “I’m only cryptic and Machiavellian ’cause I care”—but notice, too, how on that last word one voice becomes two, launching itself, as if off a cliff. ♦