Taylor Swift has a penchant for regeneration. Her albums fit a clear trajectory of personae: fairytale country princess to pumpkin-spice pin-up to self-destructive guys’ girl to unapologetic revenge-bitch to white-toothed American slightly manically watching rugby in Highgate. We left her in 2020, when she released two pandemic albums in quick succession: this time, she was black and white, in a wood cabin with various members of the National and harping on about cardigans in her autumn scarf, which came, this time, without the flawless ponytail and implicit Starbucks cup.
Where now, then? Although she declared on Reputation in 2017 that the “old Taylor” was “dead”, on her tenth album, Midnights, released today, there is immediate familiarity: romantic imagery (“sprinkler splashes” and “fireplace ashes”), soppy metaphors (“my boy was a montage”), normie glamour (“I polish up real nice”). It’s a sound reminiscent of Swift before Reputation and the fall-out with Kanye West that inspired it – a hark back to the hit-filled 1989 (2014).
But is this really the ghost of Taylor past, or is she smarter than that? However much her perceived “eras” define her image, they don’t go much deeper than that. Musically, Swift is in fact almost doggedly consistent, and her tics – which can be both irritating and deeply comforting – pervade Midnights. There are her almost one-note melodies, which pulsate knowingly until she falls off the end of the line, resigned (“cleaning incense off your vinyl shelf cos we lost track of time again”, she sings on “Maroon”). There are her assertive rhythms, defined more by the silence in between the notes than the notes themselves. “Good girl/Sad boy/Big city/Wrong choices”, she sings on “Question”, the gap between each line swollen with the possibility of the next. And there are “T-drops”, a phrase coined by the music analysis podcast Switched on Pop: a particular combination of three descending notes that occurs throughout her work, capturing the zing of sadness meeting excitement. Here, she deploys it on the nostalgic “You’re On Your Own, Kid”, as she sings: “I hosted parties and starved my body/Like I’d be saved by a perfect kiss”.
These distinctive elements of her style were there on 2020’s Folklore as much as 1989: she simply dressed them differently. Midnights, similarly, does not need to make a musical statement. Instead, it is almost inevitable, capturing quintessential Swift in a slightly evolved instrumental language. Departing from the acoustic guitars and wintry choirs of Folklore and Evermore, Midnights flirts with the contemporary sound of expansive electro R&B, with broody basslines, ethereal choruses and vocoders – not to mention a heavier reliance on Swift’s lower vocal register – mostly at a steady mid-tempo and with the trademark gloss of 1989 and Folklore producer, Jack Antonoff.
She leans, too, on the semi-ironic, almost self-aware aspirational masochism that has always come naturally to her – she presents as a kind of sculpted waxwork “messy heroine”. Listening to “Anti-Hero”, a mid-tempo ballad, you’re almost surprised she hasn’t written it before now. “It’s me,” goes the chorus, “Hi. I’m the problem, it’s me.” On “Question” those “wrong choices” are a dreamy callback to “Blank Space”, where she fetishises a relationship as her “next mistake”. On “Snow on the Beach”, which features Lana Del Rey, she tells us with perfect boredom “my night was awful, thanks for asking”. (The song, as it happens, is also delightfully boring.)
This is a record that feels deeply personal, however, with references to depressive episodes and lyrics that feel genuinely self-flagellating rather than playfully self-deprecating. “Did you hear my covert narcissism?/Like, disguised as altruism?” she sings on “Anti-Hero”. For once she has moved away from a roller-coaster of emotions – present even on the aesthetically washed-out Folklore – and instead seems more muted: “swept away in the grey”, as she sings on “Question”.
Screamable internet-culture lyrics abound. There’s “your roommate’s cheap-ass screw-top rose”, sung with a knowing wink; there’s a Kate-Bush-meets-Twitter-humour moment of madness when she wails in her soprano register, “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby/And I’m a monster on the hill”; there’s the affectedly girlish “Karma is my boyfriend”; an ironic reference to the old, vengeful Taylor – as opposed to the old old Taylor – on “Vigilante Shit”, where a sinister bassline pounds and she tells us, “don’t get sad, get even”. But Swift also gives us hints of the sincerity that was, earlier in her career, her greatest charm. “Bejewelled” has a bubbling melody that transports us back a decade. “I can still make the whole place shimmer,” she boasts, affectionately sending up the glittery world she built on her 2010 album Speak Now.
Swift’s career was originally built on wholesomeness (she was so “wholesome”, in fact, that around the time of Donald Trump’s election as US president she began to be held up as a poster-girl by the far right, which she eventually rejected by publicly endorsing Hillary Clinton) and then, for a brief period, she reacted against it, taking on the role as a “snake” – a liar and a fake. Now, having overcome her PR challenges, she is hailed – ever the romantic – as a millennial Bob Dylan. But for all her identity changes, deliberate or otherwise, she is also perfectly self-contained. On Midnights she has, perhaps, evolved for the final time: here she is purely, exquisitely herself.