Music

Taylor Swift’s Midnights Is the Right Kind of Concept Album

The new album finds the superstar bringing together the best of Folklore with the best of what came before.

A close-up of Taylor Swift shows the singer-songwriter in a cozy blue sweater, sparkly blue eyeshadow, and a palm over her face.
Republic Records/Universal

Through the history of the “concept album”—allow 1967’s Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band as the conventional start, though the practice traces back much further—most of the best have worn their central conceits lightly, rather than methodically following a theme or narrative. So it is with Taylor Swift’s new Midnights. In advance, the now-32-year-old superstar singer-songwriter pushed the idea that its 13 tracks are about 13 specific restless evenings she’s had over the years. But witching-hour scenes rarely come up explicitly on this spooky-season release. Rather, a moonlit mood is a useful filter through which to hear a set of songs of self-examination, insecurity, regret, and thankfulness—the reflections that might keep a person up at night, contemplating past and present and the passages between the two.

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But Swift is never content with one meaning when a half-dozen more insider references can be planted as well. In 2022, the title Midnights is also a nod to the hour at which albums are now released on streaming services, usually on the threshold between Thursday and Friday. The album itself became a cause for her devotees to find themselves groggily putting off bedtime last night. What’s more, Swift promised a “special very chaotic surprise” at 3 a.m. Eastern time, which turned out not to be simply a video, interview, or social-media post, but seven entire extra tracks. This was a particularly clever joke on music critics, who by temperament and vocation tend to lean nocturnal; for many, 3 a.m. sort of is our midnight. By parachuting in seven extra songs to absorb just when we might have been preparing to draft our reviews, Swift managed to induce exactly the type of frayed, hypnagogic state of body and mind that Midnights is meant to evoke. So take the following reactions with a grain of melatonin.

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Midnights is Swift’s third album in barely more than two years (fifth, if you count her “Taylor’s Version” re-recordings of Fearless and Red). The previous two new sets, Folklore and Evermore, were her pandemic recording projects, more stripped-down, acoustic-forward collections of songs made primarily in remote collaboration with composer-musician Aaron Dessner of the indie art-rock band the National, as well as with longtime producer Jack Antonoff, her chief partner more than ever throughout Midnights.

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Those records were also a songwriting breakthrough for Swift. She discovered new narrative modes that reworked and often distanced her from the autobiographical, even egocentric voice that she’d evolved from her early country-music teen-diarist style. Otherwise strong albums like Reputation and Lover too often felt tiresomely mired in the aftermath of her public feuds with music-industry rivals like Kanye West, executive Scooter Braun, and other “haters.” Whether or not Swift was in the right in these fights (I think mostly but not entirely), she seldom succeeded in that phase at converting them into songs that felt universal rather than gossipy and insular. On Folklore and Evermore, by contrast, there was a balance between more emotionally multifaceted meditations—and even tales about other people, both real and fictional. I could sympathize with listeners who found them too midtempo, too folky, too tame. But I gladly accepted that in return for the gains in maturity and—too often neglected—how much their minimalist instrumental contexts encouraged Swift to flex her vocal and harmonic skills beyond their past limits.

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It was predictable that Midnights would break from the pattern and bring Swift back to a more modern-pop sound, and likely with it more of her accessible first-person direct address. She’s going to have stadium shows to play, after all. Considering that the last time Swift shot for an upbeat chart-pop single, in 2019, she gave us the utterly cringe, regressive-feeling “Me!”, that prospect was a little worrying.

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The good news is that not only is there nothing so gauche on Midnights as “Me!”, I’d be inclined to argue that while it has its ups and downs, it may be the first non-Foklore-phase album Swift has made that has nothing notably bad on it at all. It has the inevitable lyrical clichés and clutter, but seldom enough to bog her down. Swift and Antonoff have returned from their pastoral sojourn with a renewed interest in further-out synthetic sounds—though I’d like it if they ventured further still—but with a steadier command of songcraft. The vintage synths Antonoff uses, and the vocal excursions (digitized and not) that Swift pursues, often feel indebted to both contemporary and vintage R&B, with abundant post-Prince shimmies and swerves but not the try-hard rap and dance gestures of Reputation. Generally it picks up from songs like “Dress” or “Delicate” on that album and “False God” on Lover but adds the self-awareness of the pandemic records.

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The bad news might be that it also mostly cleaves to the middling tempos of those records. At first, for me, this threatened to make it feel dull. Opening track “Lavender Haze” puts a sexy groove to Swift’s perspective on a major theme of the album, her gratitude for her lover unexpectedly sticking it out through her travails and stresses—which also sets up a subtheme about how those travails are gendered, about “the 1950s shit they want from me” such as people constantly asking her, “If I’m gonna be your bride/ The only kinda girl they see is a one-night or a wife.” At first I was a little put off by the businessy language of the lines, “Get it off your chest/ Get it off my desk,” but in some ways they do suggest the autonomy she wants to preserve along with her sex and love life—wanting to be a Madonna-like music maven without being caught in anyone’s madonna-whore complex.

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I think my initial feeling of dragging momentum was planted by the similarly paced second track “Maroon,” an OK song on its own but one that leans on a panoply of old Swiftian tropes: New York, wine, almost too-specific details of domestic scenery, clothing, etc. The title itself seems to call back purposefully to Red, with “maroon” serving as the more melancholy and experienced version. It all feels a bit generic and fan-servicey. Though that said, I was struck by the line, “Sobbing with your head in your hands/ Ain’t that the way shit always ends?” (Does Swift swear on every song here? If not, it’s fucking close.) Not to mention the buzzing synth drone that hovers and menaces throughout the second half of the song.

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On repeated listens, I found I cared less and less about how much the beats perked up and more and more about those textures and the twists of thought. It took me a minute to realize that first single “Anti-Hero” (for which a charmingly goofy video was released this morning) could actually be heard as a direct rebuttal to the mock-but-not-really-mock egotism of “Me!” I had doubted it made a good first single, but how had I overlooked the first line of its chorus? “It’s me, hi/ I’m the problem/ It’s me.” Swift has called the song one of the most naked she’s ever written about her insecurities, but it’s also funny about them. There’s the image of a touring superstar as an unrelatable monster—“too big to hang out, slowly lurching toward your favorite city”—and the Evermore-like vignette in the middle about her future children damning her posthumously when they discover she’s cut them out of her will (in favor of, the video very plausibly suggests, a cat sanctuary). Swift’s expanded ability to navigate vocal tones is also on display here. During the monster bit, she subtly affects a fantasy-European elevation reminiscent of Kate Bush, that genius of extra-human metamorphosis; then Swift switches quickly to a very Yankee drawl about “my covert narcissism/ I disguise as altruism/ like some kind of congressman.”

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“Anti-Hero” may be undermined by the way it arguably serves as apologia and cover for the later, more self-satisfied dips she makes into the feud-and-revenge pond with “Vigilante Shit” and “Karma,” which target Braun and maybe West (who no longer needs any assistance taking himself down). Personally I could have done without them, but even those songs are wittier and better constructed than their equivalents on past albums, and they do provide some variety of texture.

My counterproposal for a first single might have been “Question…?”, one of the album’s many reconsiderations of past love affairs, framed as the kind of conversation many of us wish we could have with lost figures from the past. It’s frank about the psychic and erotic confusion that can linger for years, but in an honestly curious and unjudgmental way that I find touching. Its interpolations of the “I remember” from 1989’s “Out of the Woods” (not incidentally one of Swift’s first collaborations with Antonoff) and the descending-scale cadence of the “boys only want love if it’s torture” bridge of “Blank Space” feel like shorthand ways of acknowledging the mix of nostalgia and distance that often accompanies such more mature thoughts—along with listeners’ shared awareness of Swift’s timeline and growth.

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A similar emotional acuity comes through on songs such as “You’re on Your Own, Kid” (which includes a reference to Swift’s past struggles with disordered eating, for the first time in her songwriting); the appropriately shimmery “Bejeweled” with its Giorgio Moroder synth arpeggios (and my favorite kind of Swiftian revenge, the living-well version); the mellow 1970s-style ballad “Sweet Nothing,” cowritten with boyfriend Joe Alwyn (I was unexpectedly choked up by her singing “to you, I can admit, that I’m just too soft for all of it”); and official closer “Mastermind,” which both boasts about and satirizes her image as a Machiavellian manipulator by telling the tale of her “trapping” her lover into a relationship, only to realize that he’d known and willingly gone with what she was up to all along.

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On “Anti-Hero,” Swift sings about a dilemma that many former child stars like herself fall into: “I have this thing where I get older, but just never wiser.” That’s a concern and an impatience I’ve had with her in the past, that her cosseted worldview lagged behind the expressive power of her gifts. Midnights may be in its own way another transitional album like Lover, but it reaffirms to me that she’s on her way out of those bindings.

What about those seven extra, sleep-depriving tracks? They’re all perfectly fine or better—I’m particularly fond of the off-kilterness of “Glitch”—but honestly it makes sense most were left out of the main body, offered more as behind-the-scenes works in progress. With one exception, none is as solid as the CD-only bonus track “Hits Different,” which melodically and lyrically has real “old Taylor” verve but would have been out of place in the official set. That other exception, however, is a doozy.

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Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” is Swift in her ballad-singing-assassin mode, an unexpected return to the murderous frankness of “Dear John” and “All Too Well”—only with the added potency of being sung from a grownup perspective about the events of her teens. It’s too volatile to suit the general tone of Midnights, plus it wasn’t an Antonoff production—it’s a cowrite with Folklore-period co-conspirator Dessner. But no doubt it was also withheld because if people had heard it first, it would have overshadowed the rest of the project. With charging momentum unlike anything else on the album, it’s explicitly about “a dance with the devil” when Swift was 19, and hardcore fans will trace back those breadcrumbs back without much effort. Its most potent barb? “Living for the thrill of hitting you where it hurts/ Give me back my girlhood, it was mine first,” Swift sings. “I regret you all the time.”

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Yet like the rest of Midnights, it’s much more fully rounded than similar Swift songs gone by: “The god’s-honest truth is that the pain was heaven/ And now that I’m grown, I’m scared of ghosts/ Memories feel like weapons.” She sings about missing a faith that she lost a decade-plus ago, but the song is also about how those double-edged experiences were choices she made, too, ones that made her who she is. It’s not the simple score-settling of her younger poison-pen exercises.

In “Dear Reader,” which closes the expanded version of the album, she acknowledges, as she does on “Anti-Hero,” that the Taylor Swift persona always has been an unreliable narrator, as much as some fervent fans (and sometimes Swift herself) willfully overlook it: “Never take advice from someone who’s falling apart.” True. But do open yourself to a heart-to-heart with someone who, step by step, night after night, is bringing it all back together.

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