Album Review: Taylor Swift - Midnights
Meet me at midnight.
It’s 10:59 p.m. on a Thursday, and typically I would have, and quite honestly, already should have, folded myself into bed roughly an hour ago. My wife, bemused by my decision to stay up for the late-night release of Midnights, has undoubtedly fallen asleep by now, and our dog, who at first was curious, then a little interested in the fact that I was still up, has now opted to burrow deep into his bed and bury himself underneath two blankets. I can hear his snoring coming from the living room as I sit at the kitchen table. I haven’t exactly “set the mood” for the release of a new Taylor Swift album—the blue light from my open laptop shines on my face, and it is not exactly an ideal atmosphere to listen to something like this.
My eyes dart to the clock in the top right corner of the screen, waiting for the moment when 10:59 p.m. turns into 11:00 p.m. and I, as she requests in the opening line of the first song on the album, can meet Taylor at midnight—or at least, 11 p.m. central time.
The warm amber glow from the light over the sink—the light we literally leave on all of the time, illuminates the rest of my listening environment, and at the strike of 11 p.m., I refresh Taylor Swift’s artist page on Spotify one more time, and see that Midnights has, in fact, arrived, but, much to my actual surprise in the moment, I am not the only person who is trying to listen to the album—this is something that I, honestly, had not even considered. That so many people would be huddled around their respective devices at this time of night, all clamoring for the album, and that the streaming service we all, more or less, loathe but still rely on regardless, would be unable to handle the volume of users in that very moment.
The album page refuses to load.
I receive an error message.
I panic and open up the iTunes Store and, in watching the minutes tick away—two of them, now, and these are minutes that I have lost in my attempt to meet Taylor at midnight, and minutes that put my bedtime further and further away—it is a school night, after all, and my alarm set for 4 a.m. will come entirely too soon, and I am, perhaps, entirely too old to be staying up to do something like this—and even though I have pre-ordered a copy of Midnights—one of the many variant vinyl editions with alternate cover art, and even though if I give this a few more minutes there is a good chance that a link to download the album would appear within the shared and leaked album thread I frequent on an internet forum, I do not have time for that.
Taylor has asked we meet her at midnight, and I am running behind.
I hit “buy” on the album in the iTunes Store and watch as the files appear in my music library. I cannot hit play fast enough.
Meet me at midnight.
Midnights is Taylor Swift’s tenth studio album—her first of new, or not re-recorded, material since the pandemic inspired one-two of Folklore and Evermore in the summer and winter of 2020. Announced in late August, during her acceptance speech for the “Video of The Year” award at the MTV Video Music Awards, the rollout for the album has been elaborate in terms of revealing the limited edition cover variants (there are four in total), and the corresponding colors the vinyl editions of the album was pressed onto (there are five—lavender, jade green, moonstone blue, blood moon, and mahogany), then slowly, through a series of TikTok clips that would later be shared to Swift’s Instagram page, she shared the song titles, and eventually a few comments on the inspiration about each song, but she did not share any singles in advance of the album’s arrival as the clock struck midnight on October 21st, or in my case, 11 p.m, central time, on October 20th.
It is a curious strategy—one that an artist like Swift, who has built such an enormous and dedicated following over her career, is in the kind of position where she can pull something like this off in terms of maintaining a sense of anticipation and hype, but playing it all close to the chest until the final moment. The notion of the ‘curious strategy’ has worked for her in the past—following the five-month rollout of singles arriving in advance of Lover, in 2019, the following year, she gave her audience more or less 24 hours’ notice about the releases of Folklore and Evermore, which were both announced the day prior (a Thursday) to their digital release date (a Friday.)
And, this is something that I have been aware of for several years now, and try to tread cautiously around, but am also very guilty of being a part of the problem w/r/t what we ask, or in some cases, demand, out of an artist, when that artist has already given so much of themselves, time and time again.
Following the announcement that Midnights was imminent, I spent the bulk of September wondering when Swift would release a single—then, as September turned into October, wondering if she would release a single. My apparent, and perhaps baseless need to hear something from the album before its arrival in full—an album that I did, gladly, and willingly, blindly pre-order from Swift’s online store, became a small source of contention with my friend Alyssa, who was confident that she would not be disappointed as a whole in Midnights, was completely fine without any singles prior, and was a little perplexed by my insistence that Taylor gives us something ahead of time.
I tried to appreciate, and respect, Swift’s dedication to secrecy with the songs themselves until the album was out in the world, but I felt like at least one song, in advance, would put me at ease—and my need for assurance, or at least a hint of what I might be in for with the record appeared to Alyssa, in part at least, as impatience.
I meet Taylor Swift, where many listeners met her as Thursday, October 20th, became Friday, October 21st—at midnight.
Midnights, in the initial reviews, has been described, and perhaps rightfully so, as a concept album—the songs themselves are tightly connected through the idea of late, often sleepless nights, with “midnight” itself, as a time and place, being lyrically referenced throughout. In her two most recent studio outings, Swift split her co-writing and producing with both The National’s Aaron Dessner and her longtime regular collaborator, pop auteur Jack Antonoff, but Midnights, at least the way it sounds, is shaped exclusively by Antonoff, who is the sole producer of the standard edition of the album and its 13 tracks; Dessner is credited as a co-writer and producer on four of Midnights’ additional songs—one of them, the shimmering “Hits Different,” is featured on the version of the album available on CD at Target stores, while the other three tunes are found within the “3 a.m. Version” of Midnights, which was digitally released, as you can guess based on its description, at three in the morning on Friday, October 21st.
Swift’s albums, famously, can be lengthy, depending on the album itself, and then what format you opt to consume them through. Lover, one of her few albums without additional “bonus tracks,” spans over an hour and is 18 songs deep, and her re-recorded “Taylor’s Version” releases so far can be intimidating based on their sheer scope—both Fearless and Red are sprawling double albums on compact disc.
In meeting Taylor Swift between midnight and 3 a.m., somewhere in there, in the 21 original songs spread out across the myriad versions of Midnights available (there are also two alternate arrangements of songs featured on the Target CD edition), there is a slightly more concise and perhaps a little more poignant journey through Swift’s sleepless nights to be found by trimming a few away. Even when it does get weighed down by a small amount of excess and perhaps a lack of self-editing, and even within the few moments where it does really falter, Midnights is a remarkably ambitious album, however you choose to look at it or listen to it—one that embraces surprising arrangements and sonic textures. It allows Swift to continue writing narratives of both her past and present through her lyricism.
Meet me at midnight.
Midnights, within seconds, opens with not so much a request but a demand. Over a slithering, pulsating beat, Swift asks that we meet her at midnight, and we really have no choice but to comply.
Across the proper album’s 13 tracks, with Antonoff at the helm for all of them, he and Swift pull the sound of Midnights away from the more acoustically inclined or “indie folk” leaning aesthetic of Folklore and Evermore, and even further away from the often bright and energetic feeling of Lover into someplace that is not “darker,” exactly—but certainly shadowy and at times murkier, which is indicative of the album’s lyricism itself. Swift’s writing here is, also, not “dark” exactly, but within her words, she places herself in what she refers to as “midnights past,” and ruminates on a set of thematic elements throughout—falling in love, falling apart, revenge, wondering “what might have been,” and self-hatred.
Both sonically and lyrically, when Midnights works, it really works and is truly something to behold, specifically with Swift’s regularly clever and poignant writing; when it doesn’t work, however, it can be “cringe,” or at least place an uncomfortable wince across the face—but even within many of those moments, like when a song is a little less successfully executed, there are elements that make the cringe more or less forgivable and the song still more or less listenable.
Arguably, Midnights is the kind of album that is frontloaded with its best or what I would call its most compelling material across the board, even as polarizing as specific moments within the first half have become in discussions about the record—and with this being the case, the album does lose a little bit of its focus and momentum once it crosses over into the second side.
The record itself, on vinyl, is split up in an odd place, perhaps simply due to how much you can safely fit on one side of an LP—but the halfway mark comes after the sixth track, “Midnight Rain,” and the second half beginning with the restrained, shimmering, and lyrically puzzling “A Question…” After “A Question…” comes to its succinct conclusion, in what is almost a creeping whisper, Swift opens the next track by uttering the phrase, “Draw the cat eye sharp enough to kill a man. You did some bad things, but I’m the worst of them.”
Upon my initial listen of Midnights, huddled over my computer, there were a number of things about the album that were quite surprising—one of them was the song “Vigilante Shit.” The title, alone, of course, is a bit of a surprising turn, but the implications of the expression lean heavily into its tone. Musically, it’s among the heaviest in terms of how Antonoff’s production rumbles through you—a number of the songs on the record are constructed around something that I can’t safely call “minimalism,” but, throughout Midnights, he’s doing a lot with very little, if that makes sense. On “Vigilante Shit,” the bass of the antiquated drum machine is heavy enough to destroy the subwoofer installed in the trunk of a teenager’s car stereo—and there is not much else to it, outside of that, some wonky, buzzy synthesizer blasts, and the occasional metallic echo applied to Swift’s vocals.
Taylor Swift, as a songwriter, can devastate she wants to—she often does, but she also has a sense of humor, and sometimes that works in her favor, though there are other instances where it doesn’t land, and “Vigilante Shit” is one of those moments. It is among the weakest songs on the proper edition of the album, and the skittering, crawling rhythm of the song brings the momentum to a grinding halt—structurally, it is also a song that, like, literally goes nowhere, as Swift rattles off an unfortunately uninteresting revenge fantasy narrative, held together by the chorus of “I don’t start shit, but I can tell you how it ends. Don’t get mad—get even. So on the weekends, I don’t dress for friends; lately, I’ve been dressing for revenge.”
Shortly after, the ethereal “Labyrinth” does nothing to help revive the album’s pacing—after a short introduction with a muffled percussive loop and the sound of an oscillating organ tone, a steady thumping beat slides in to build the rhythm that Antonoff then layers an array of synthesizer drones and seemingly miscast blasts on top of, with Swift singing in a higher, fragile, and breathier range for parts of the song—she eventually drops down to the register she is more comfortable in, but the kind of hypnotic effect of the song’s chorus—a warning, to herself, or perhaps to an unidentified character, where she repeats “Oh no, I’m falling in love again,” isn’t enough to create the sense of dynamism that “Labyrinth” is ultimately lacking.
I realize, or have at least become more aware in the last couple of years, that I am an unlikely listener of so much pop music—and I think the thing that I still struggle with, regarding my enjoyment of it is that pop music can and often does have a sense of humor. Pop music often does not take itself seriously, and in many cases, is something ‘fun’ to listen to—a small form of escapism, if you will.
I do not have a sense of humor, though, and often take myself (and what I want to listen to) entirely too seriously; and am not someone who regularly searches for fun things.
And I mention this struggle, and perhaps it is a struggle other listeners of Midnights have faced, because of a song like “Karma,” which arrives near the end of the record, sequenced after “Labyrinths,” as a final gasp of pop music exuberance prior to the tender lullaby and the swirling dramatic moment that brings Midnights to its conclusion.
And simply from its production and arranging, “Karma” is one of the more fascinating songs featured on the album—the collision of a woozy, ramshackle-sounding synthesizer tone with a skittering and clattering kind of rhythm, both of which work together to create an almost dizzying feeling that commands you to get out of your seat and dance in the haze it has created. Among the moments on Midnights that are far less dark, or murky in tone, “Karma” is triumphant and jubilant in sound, and because of the feeling that it seemingly, without much effort, creates and the effect that feeling has on its listeners, it is very easy to get caught up in the overall vibe of the song and not realize Swift’s lyricism, which is where “Karma” falls short.
And it is perhaps the songs that are either directly, or indirectly, about ‘revenge,’ as one of the overarching concepts on Midnights, that are the least successful, or thematically less interesting. “You’re talking shit for the hell of it,” Swift begins in “Karma.” “Addicted to betrayal, but you’re relevant. You’re terrified to look down ‘cause if you dare, you’ll see the glare of everyone you burned just to get there.” The song itself, at least dissected by users on Genius, is more than likely another hit piece on Scooter Braun, the music industry executive who famously sold the master recordings of Swift’s first six records to a holdings firm—the act that prompted Swift to begin the processes of re-recording those albums and reissuing them as “Taylor’s Versions” in order to retain the rights to her material. Braun has been on the receiving end of her ire in other recently penned songs, and on “Karma,” Swift, while taking aim and firing at Braun (allegedly) during the verses, it is in the chorus where she manifests only good things for herself, and she does so in an embarrassingly cringey way, which a friend of mine described with accuracy as “glitter pen.”
In the chorus—yes, it’s catchy, of course (it is a pop song, after all), but in it, Swift rattles off all of the things that she believes karma to be, including but not limited to: her boyfriend, a god, the breeze in her hair on the weekend, a relaxing thought, and a cat.
“Flexing like a goddamn acrobat,” she attests. “Me and karma vibe like that.”
If “Karma” is the last final gasp of exuberant, kaleidoscopic pop music on Midnights, an album that, even in its restless nature at times, is not exactly bright in how it sounds, then what do the final two songs on the album sound like, and where does it take the record in its conclusion?
Regardless of whether the song, in the end, really winds up working, one thing that Midnights does and does exceptionally well is it knows how to operate from a place of simmering or smoldering tension with really little, if any, release. For as big and bombastic as Swift’s pop canon can be, and has been, in the past, there are only a handful of this kind of momentous highs to be found here—it doesn’t make for an uneasy listen, not really, but there are moments when you wonder if the tension will ever break, or if certain songs will really be allowed to soar as high as they maybe would like to.
Midnights ends with a song that thrives from that place of oscillation without any release or resolve in sight. Not exactly a final technicolor exhalation, nor is it pensive and reflective, “Mastermind,” from the moment it starts, feels like its ready to burst at the seams into something much larger or grand, but Swift and Antonoff never really let it, allowing it to just swirl around in a musical holding pattern, even in the theatrical chorus to the song, where I suppose one can look at the arc of romantic highs and lows depicted on the album as coming to an end, as the main character gets what she wants, but it is the ‘how’ of how the protagonist finds that happiness that isn’t malicious exactly, but surmising in how manipulative it is. “What I fi told you none of it was accidental?,” Swift asks. “And the first night that you saw me, nothing was gonna stop me…and now you’re mine—it was all by design ‘cause I’m a mastermind.”
In between those moments is a song that does not the listener out of the world of Midnights, but it is at least musically like nothing else on the record in terms of its aesthetic. A lullaby of sorts, co-written between Swift and her partner, actor Joe Alwyn, “Sweet Nothing” is soulful and tender moment that finds the couple reflecting on their lives together.
This is not the first time Swift has co-written with Alwyn, who uses the pseudonym William Bowery—the first was his surprising attachment to the theatrical exploration of toxic masculinity in Folklore, “Exile.” The Target ‘exclusive’ edition of Midnights closes with an alternate arrangement of “Sweet Nothing” performed on the piano, but on the iteration that made the tracklist for the ‘proper’ version of the album, the song is sung over the top of the warm, twinkling, and delicate tones of an electric piano, and then an eventual and welcomed horn accompaniment.
It is a love song, yes, and why wouldn’t it be, given that Alwyn and Swift wrote it together, but unlike a number of the other tunes on Midnights, that operate from what comes after love has ended (often heartbreak, remorse, or longing), it is a love song set in the present. Perhaps a little saccharine, there is something very human in a line Swift sings in “Sweet Nothing”’s bridge which has really lingered well after the first listen: “And the voices that implore ‘You should be doing more,’ to you—I can admit that I’m just too soft for it all.”
Meet me at midnight.
I think the thing that is most impressive about Midnights, outside of its meticulous and fascinating (and some would argue chaotic and overbearing) production, is how unrelenting the first half of it is—I hesitate to say ‘flawless’ because not every song is perfect, and this run of six songs does contain some of the album’s most polarizing, but even at its most polarizing, or even when it is flawed, all of them are wildly compelling in their own way.
The album opens with a slither and writhe, then pulls you down even further into something murky, smoldering, and slinking, but Swift and Antonoff are both intelligent enough to understand how, at least within the first side, to find the balance between tension and release as they navigate the sometimes dramatic shifts in tonality during the first six tracks.
With the sequencing of “Lavender Haze” and “Maroon,” back to back, at the top of the album, Swift barely comes up for air in between the two, and the listener, too, is more or less plunged further into the kind of gauzy, cavernous darkness both of these operate from within.
Not exactly the antithesis to the type of tender, contemplative reflections of love depicted in “Sweet Nothings,” “Lavender Haze” is a sly dissection of new, or budding love in the modern age—“If the world finds out you’re in love with somebody, they’re going to weigh in on it,” Swift explained in one of the short videos she shared on social media briefly discussing the songs from the album prior to its release. Even with the brooding, shadowy arranging of the song—the rumbling bass and glitchy percussion, there is a pure pop song hiding just underneath, waiting to be let out through the song’s brisk pacing, and the infectiousness of the chorus.
“Lavender Haze” is an intelligent choice for an opening track because it is, and is not, indicative of the songs to come—from the moment the rhythm of the song begins pulsating, upon my initial listen of the album in meeting Swift at midnight, per her request, I wondered if the whole album was going to sound like this—this cavernous and claustrophobic but still somehow accessible to a pop audience. And she does double down on this sensation with the second track, “Maroon,” which is among the absolute finest and most impressive moments on the record, but this kind of oppressive production that does both figuratively and literally cast shadows eventually lifts.
It’s indicative of the album's unpredictability, and the ride Swift will be taking us on, but this kind of tone is more or less unsustainable for an entire record.
Swift has famously built a mythology or a lore around herself in the way she has mined her past, and past relationships, for lyrical content—a little less so on Folklore and Evermore, both of which featured admittedly fictionalized narratives and characters, but Midnights marks Swift’s return as the main character.
As a songwriter, or lyricist, Swift has a knack for both poignant observations and lines that stay with you long after the album has concluded—and there are a number of those throughout Midnights, as well as her ability to craft an extremely vivid story, which is what she does on “Maroon,” as she revisits fragmented moments from her relationship to Harry Styles. The song’s arrangement rumbles—lower frequency and tone synthesizer drones and fidgety drum programming create truly a creeping, eerie atmosphere—especially near the end where Swift’s vocals are pulled through an unsettling, distended echo—for her to paint this evocative portrait, all of it coming together to make something that is both sensual but filled with a visceral regret.
“What Could Have Been” is one of the themes Swift explores throughout Midnights, and on “Maroon,” she doesn’t exactly wonder what life might be like for her if she were still involved in her whirlwind relationship with Styles, but there is this terrible longing you can hear in her voice, specifically within the imagery found in the chorus—of dancing in New York with no shoes, or of a spilled wine on a t-shirt; or, as the relationship begins to disintegrate, depicted in the second verse, “Carnations you thought were roses—that’s us.”
Everybody is a sexy baby.
I am still uncertain, after how many listens, and how many days now since the release of Midnights, and the evening of meeting Taylor at midnight, sitting near my laptop late in the evening—I am still just so uncertain about how I feel w/r/t Swift’s usage of the expression “sexy baby” in the second verse to “Anti-Hero.”
I get that it’s a “30 Rock” reference—albeit, perhaps a little bit of an idiosyncratic one, but it was the first point within Midnights, three songs in, when I was taken out of the world of the album for just a moment, unable to get over just how awkward and cringey Swift’s choice of lyricism was.
With the album itself having roughly two months of hype and promotion behind it, and no advance singles by the time it was released, as the world was easing its way through Midnights, together, as some kind of communal listening experience, all of us tethered by frantic tweets about this lyric or that, “Anti-Hero” was selected to be the first “single” off of the album—the first track to get its own blurb on Pitchfork, for example, and the first song from the project that had an accompanying music video2.
Midnights is not an album that is lacking in single-worthy material by any means, but it does make sense that “Anti-Hero” would be picked as the first one, even after the album as a whole was readily available—it is among the album’s most accessible and straightforward, with a huge, infectious chorus, and sonically it is probably the brightest sounding of the collection.
And it is an interesting contrast on the parts of Swift and Antonoff to craft something, musically, as dazzling as “Anti-Hero” sounds, full of bombastic and shimmering arranging, then pair it up with one of the more self-deprecating songs, lyrically, on the album. The cumbersome, “sexy baby” reference aside, “Self Hatred,” is, of course, one of the themes Swift opts to explore across the album, and it is most apparent here in the depictions of herself—specifically in the alarmingly fun, shout-a-long chorus of, “It’s me—hi. I’m the problem. It’s me.”
It’s weird, but fucking beautiful.
For as puzzling, and polarizing, as Swift’s use of the expression “sexy baby” is, the fourth track on Midnights is as puzzling and polarizing, if not more so.
When the titles and tracklist were announced for Midnights, over the course of several days, it was eventually revealed that the album would feature a guest turn from Elizabeth Grant—the singer known as Lana Del Rey, who was attached to the song “Snow at The Beach.” Given Jack Antonoff’s role in the development of Midnights, Grant’s appearance on the album was a surprise, but made sense, I suppose, but the internet went to work speculating that given the title of the song she was being featured on, what kind of “snow” it was going to be about.
Musically, I was uncertain what to expect from “Snow at The Beach” as I stared at its title in my iTunes library, waiting for it to begin playing while I, and all of us, really, were meeting Taylor at midnight—for some reason, given that Swift herself had explained the song was, and I am paraphrasing here, about falling in love with someone while they are falling in love with you, I anticipated some kind of sparse, slower ballad performed on the piano.
What I had not anticipated was the restraint the song has, and operates within, as well as the jangly haze that is cast over it; I had also not expected Grant’s feature to be relegated to background vocals that, depending on how you listen (stereo, in the car, through headphones), are absolutely buried within the mixing. And sometimes it works, giving the song the ethereal quality that it wants, but it also seems like a missed opportunity to turn the song into more of a duet, or at least giving Grant a little more room within the song than she winds up receiving.
The titular snow on the titular beach is, unsurprisingly, very literal, and is sung with total earnestness as Swift’s and Grant’s voices combine within layers of dreamy haze to put a description to a new love—“Now we’re falling like snow at the beach—weird, but fucking beautiful.” And if the “sexy baby” line just one song before this was slightly hard to hear, or process, the lack of irony in the utterance in that description—“weird, but fucking beautiful,” is a lot to take.
The first side of Midnights winds itself down with one of its most sweeping and dramatic songs, as well as another one of its most polarizing amongst listeners—at least upon its initial arrival when meeting Taylor at midnight.
Like “Maroon,” I would contest that the pulsating, driving “You’re On Your Own, Kid,” is among one of the album’s finest—musically, Antonoff and Swift pull away from electro-infused darkness of the first two tracks on the album, and while still managing to lean into the kind of kaleidoscopic, big ‘pop’ songwriting structure of “Anti-Hero,” they do it in a slightly more subtle way on “You’re Own Your Own.” Built around an unwavering bass line, the layers slowly pile on, including low, moody washes of synthesizers, the gentlest thump, and tap of drum machine percussion (which does, eventually, give way to the thundering of a real drum kit), and then Swift’s delicate, wistful vocal delivery. The song continues to grow throughout the verses and choruses, until it seems like it is going to blast off, or at least, until it seems like it is going to get away from Antonoff and Swift, but it never does—the sense of restraint remains, even after a heavily distorted, noisy guitar comes in, and is used to generate a squall of feedback that brings the song to its conclusion.
And perhaps more polarizing, or at least more surprising than the inclusion of the lyric, “Everybody is a sexy baby,” from “Anti-Hero,” or the miscast, and difficult-to-find appearance of Lana Del Rey on the very literal and swooning “Snow at The Beach,” is the continual application of pitch-shifted, warbled sounding vocals—continually applied in a number of places to the point where it is a studio trick that loses its charm and as the album enters its second half, it becomes much less interesting to hear.
The technique is used almost right from the rip after Taylor commands we meet her at midnight—a kind of unsettling, lower voice slides in on “Lavender Haze” with wordless backup singing before she begins the first verse; and on the slow-burning, wriggling “Midnight Rain,” the song that somewhat unceremoniously closes out the first side, that same processed, lower vocal tone is the first thing you hear—but not only is it Swift’s voice with the pitch pulled down to the depths, but it’s run through a number of additional effects to make it even more startling and unsettling to hear as it quivers through your ears: “Rain—he wanted it comfortable, I wanted that pain,” the voice begins. “He wanted a bride; I was making my own name, chasing that fame; he stayed the same—all of me changed like midnight.”
I have, at various portions of the year, found myself both thinking about, and writing about, the notion of “the b-side”—specifically, thinking about why artists choose to release them, and why they choose to release them when they do.
My friend Tyler Dozier, who puts out music under the moniker Lady Dan, released a 7” single this spring, in commemoration of the first anniversary of her debut full-length, I Am The Prophet—the single contained two additional tracks that were written, recorded, and mastered for inclusion on the album, but were ultimately cut from the final running. Dozier told me she knew, going into the record, that she wanted to have additional material to release at some point to extend the record's life, and remain relevant as an independent artist in what is certainly a difficult marketplace to fight for space in.
Carly Rae Jepsen, who released her new full-length, The Loneliest Time, on the same day as Swift released Midnights, famously over-writes material when preparing to make a record—fabled to have written close to 200 songs for previous efforts like Emotion and Dedicated, there are the tunes that make it onto the final product, and then there have been the tunes that find their way onto a “Side B” compendium a year later.
Then there are the songs that remain unreleased, the subject of chatter amongst fans on the internet, clamoring for something stashed away in a vault.
Jepsen, similarly to Swift, also had a deal with Target stores for the release of The Loneliest Time—the CD version available in store featured a slightly different cover, and one additional track; that additional tune, as well as two others, also appeared on the “deluxe edition” of the record through digital and streaming platforms.
In the rollout of Midnights, especially in the week leading up to the album’s arrival, Swift teased some kind of “chaos” happening during the literal middle of the night—what that chaos wound up being was a collection of seven additional songs from the Midnights sessions being released as the “3 a.m. Edition” of the record.
The thing about b-sides, or unreleased material, as a whole—and this is perhaps a gross generalization, is that it becomes pretty apparent, once you begin listening to them, why they didn’t wind up on the proper album. Often, they are not a total misstep, but there is something lacking—whatever that might be—that prevents them from making the final cut.
After meeting Taylor at midnight, and getting roughly four hours of sleep, I was absolutely shocked to find that, once I started my morning on Friday, October 21st, Swift had released these additional “3 a.m.” tracks—songs that, as she put it, other songs that were written on the “journey to find that magic 13.”
And I think, still perhaps in a haze from staying up beyond my usual bedtime and still riding the high of Midnights as an album, and Midnights as an experience, as I listened to the “3 a.m” tracks that morning, at work, I perhaps sung their praises a bit too quickly—sending a message to my friend Alyssa, telling her that they were “as good, if not better” than some of the songs that wound up on the proper edition of the record.
She was quick to disagree, and while she has admittedly come around on a few of them that there was initially some skepticism over, my feelings on these additional songs have, in turn, not completely soured, but I think my generalized praise across the board was erroneous, and should have been more specific on a, like, song by song basis—because there are a number of them that are the kind of song that, once you really begin listening, you can see why it was not selected for the album itself.
But a smaller handful of these “3 a.m.” songs are compelling enough to spend time with.
Swift’s lyricism can be a lot of things, many of which she demonstrates across Midnights, and clever, or whip-smart, is undoubtedly one facet to her songwriting—something that is apparent in the song “High Infidelity”—the title alone a terribly clever play on words. Opening with a very light, blippy synthesizer progression, Swift’s voice arrives over the top of gently played piano chords—her lyrics tumbling down into the fabric of the song in an already very clearly defined rhythm, emphasizing the rhyme that is tucked at the end of each line.
Structurally, “High Infidelity” is not a slow-burning song, but it is one with patience in how long it waits for all of the additional elements to arrive—produced alongside Aaron Dessner, the synth and electronic-heavy base of the song is uncharacteristic of Dessner’s production and arranging in the past with Swift, which has leaned much more heavily into more organic and acoustic sounding instrumentation, so musically, it is refreshing, albeit surprising in how reserved it is—it continues to slowly build, yes, but even as the other elements are piled on, like the thumping rhythm that figures out a way into the space between the blips of the keyboard, the song is never really at risk of getting away from Dessner or Swift.
Lyrically, the song makes alleged references to the demise of Swift’s relationship with producer Calvin Harris, and her short-lived courtship with Tom Hiddleston—do we really want to know where she was on April 29th? It seems like a loaded question, the way she asks it, and whoever annotated the lyrics for “High Infidelity” on Genius pointed out that is the release date (in 2016) for the Harris-produced tune “This is What You Came For,” and three days before Swift seen with Hiddleston at the MET Gala.
Dessner was also involved with the writing and production of some of the other additional tracks from Midnights that are of note—he, alongside Swift and Antonoff, is credited on “Hits Different,” which is the one extra original song included on the edition of the album found at Target. As songwriters, producers, and musicians, even after they originally began working together, through Swift, over two years ago, I still find the worlds of Aaron Dessner and Jack Antonoff colliding to be an unlikely but fascinating pairing.
Of the additional tunes featured in various other configurations of Midnights, “High Infidelity,” while not as directly murky or outright as chaotically bright, is restrained enough to have fit in well enough somewhere on the record proper; “Hits Different,” however, would not have, simply because it is too bright of a pop song. Beginning with a cleanly strummed electric guitar, a subtle though jaunty beat appears underneath it as Swift quickly leads the song into the gigantic chorus—shimmering so much it almost blinds, reminiscent of the blatantly fun, pure pop music that Swift has crafted in the past on both Lover and 1989.
Swift, very obviously, knows how to write something enormous and something catchy, and knows how to make a song smolder, but something of note from both Folklore and Evermore were songs that operated from such a place of quiet tension—often without any percussive element, they appeared to not be directionless, or have a lack of rhythm exactly, but there was a surprisingly ethereal quality to them, setting them apart from the rest. It’s moody enough to seem like it should have Aaron Dessner’s name attached to it in the album’s credits, but the somber, atmospheric “Bigger Than The Whole Sky” is another piece co-written by Antonoff—a surprise based on the fact that it is unlike the other material he helped craft for Midnights.
Without a doubt, one of the more stirring and dramatic songs found on any iteration of the album, “Bigger Than The Whole Sky” is also one of the most outright heartbreaking in terms of how Swift’s writing deals with a seemingly ambiguous kind of loss, and within that loss, there is a visceral urgency—a longing and desperation, that comes through, most apparent in the chorus.
In 2019, once I, in earnest, began listening to Taylor Swift, and especially in 2020, when I, without hesitation, immersed myself in Folklore and Evermore, something I understood about Swift’s lyrics is her ability to turn very specific and memorable phrases—the kind of line that haunts you; the kind of line that, regardless of how your lived experience may or may not be similar to hers, it resonates in a way that makes you feel simultaneously seen and attacked.
It is in “Bigger Than The Whole Sky” where Swift, also, turns one of the most memorable phrases on Midnights—“Every single thing I touch becomes sick with sadness.”
The finest song included in the “3 a.m.” edition of Midnights, and a song that is much more compelling and emotionally resonant than a number of songs that are found in the second half of Midnights, is “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve”—cathartic in a way that no other track on the album is capable of being, and arresting in just how unflinchingly personal and revealing its narrative is.
Swift, regardless of if she has already mined previous relationships in songs from further back in her canon, often returns to ones that have had an impact on her—for better or for worse, and she had, in the past, detailed her involvement with John Mayer on the slow-burning “Dear John,” from 2010’s Speak Now. Swift was 19 during her time with Mayer, and he was 32. Now, as Swift approaches her 33rd birthday, she revisits this relationship—and more importantly, the feelings she’s still trying to process about it, on “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve.”
“Would’ve,” musically speaking, at least once it gets underway, truthfully does not fit with the rest of the tone Swift set with the tunes that she selected for Midnights—produced and co-written by Aaron Dessner, and featuring performances from The National’s powerhouse drummer Bryan Devendorf, Dessner’s twin brother Bryce on guitar, and regular National collaborator Thomas Bartlett on keyboards, it is entirely more organic sounding than the synthetic aesthetic of the songs that Jack Antonoff had more of a hand in sculpting; the inclusion of Devendorf’s frenetic skill on the drum kit makes it sound, truthfully, like it could have worked as a National song.
Lyrically though, and the snarling sense of anger and regret Swift uses in her writing here makes it more impactful than a number of the songs that eventually found their way onto the “magic 13” tracks selected for Midnights.
“Would’ve” isn’t the first time Swift has used religious imagery within her songwriting, and here uses it to convey a corruption of innocence, and the ending of her youth, referring to her antagonist (again, allegedly Mayer) as a “crisis of her faith.”
“If I’d only played it safe, I would have stayed on my knees, and I damn sure would have never danced with the devil,” she exclaims in the dizzying, soaring chorus, though she is still, after over a decade, trying to grapple with how she feels about this relationship and what it did to her in the end. “The god’s honest truth is that the pain was heaven,” Swift continues, conflictingly, then reaches a line that speaks to the larger conceit of Midnights, and the things that may come to us during sleepless nights: “Now that I’m grown, I’m so scared of ghosts—memories feel like weapons.”
The most jaw-dropping moment in “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve,” as maybe one would anticipate, is the bridge section—Swift, famously, can write the absolute shit out of a bridge, and what she does here is simply incredible. There is a terrible, palpable urgency and desperation to the way she allows herself to get caught up in the swirling atmosphere of the song and sings, “God rest my soul, I miss who I used to be,” then shortly after, one of the most harrowing lines on the album, regardless of which edition you listen to: “I regret you all the time.”
Everybody is a sexy baby.
Or, that is what Taylor Swift tells us in “Anti-Hero.” We are all sexy babies, save for her—she is the monster on a hill, threatening to destroy our city.
And I have tried, and perhaps you have too, to make peace with the lyric from “Anti-Hero,” in the days and weeks since Midnights was released. I have struggled, but have found that the longer I have sat with the album, and in my attempts to appreciate all facets of it, even the elements that I am not entirely fond of, the “sexy baby” line is becoming less difficult for me to hear each time—a little less awkward, and a little less embarrassing.
My experiences with Taylor Swift have been limited compared to others who have been fans, or avid listeners, since her very early days—but within my time spent around her music, I have come to understand that there are different tiers, or levels, to her lyrics. Sometimes they, like the “sexy baby” line, or the chorus from “Karma,” or even looking at “Willow,” on Evermore, and the line “I come back stronger than a 90s trend”—they are all laced with a self-aware sense of humor that for me, as someone to often takes music entirely too seriously, usually doesn’t work.
My knee-jerk reaction is to write them off as silly, though most listeners probably have a better sense of humor than I do, and would see them as fun. And that is the thing about pop music. It is often here to have fun and wants you to have fun along with it.
There are other lyrics, or portions of a song that are part of the narrative, sure, but they are also maybe there to just get the listener from Point A, which is often a verse, to Point B, which in many cases has an enormous, shimmering chorus. They are lyrics that do not necessarily need to be dwelled upon, or scoured for a larger meaning, though at times there can be some clever, or thought-provoking wordplay, but there is more of an emphasis on function over form—smaller instances of this are the sly, winking, “Get it off your chest/get it off my desk,” from “Lavender Haze,” and the surprisingly haunting, “I’m awake with your memory over me—that’s a real fucking legacy to leave.”
Larger instances are found in “Anti-Hero,” in the lead-up to the second chorus, where Swift lets loose with a sprawling phrase, allowing her words to fall with precision into the music below her: “Did you hear my covert narcissism I disguise as altruism like some kind of congressmen,” she asks, impressively cramming those words, that rhyme, and all the syllables into the rhythm—something she does elsewhere in a similar fashion with the hypnotic and creeping way the final chorus of “Maroon” is quietly uttered.
What is most stunning, though, about Swift as a songwriter, or a storyteller, is the emotional, often dramatic gravity she can put into literally a single line—something like the, “Leaving like a father, running like water,” lyric in “Cardigan, or more personal and less abstract, the “I might be okay, but I’m not fine at all,” from last year’s 10-minute version of “All Too Well.”
In the past, Swift has not been shy when it comes to writing about her mental health as she sees fit—“You don’t really read into my melancholia,” one of the earliest lines she sings on “Lavender Haze,” speaks volumes, and a lyric like, “Every single thing I touch becomes sick with sadness,” from “Bigger Than The Whole Sky,” speaks even louder.
And there were a lot of things, lyrically and musically, that grabbed my attention or surprised me during my first listen of the album, the evening I met Taylor at midnight, but the line that hit me the hardest—and still resonates every time I listen, and perhaps serves as a counterpoint to “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby,” is a short, observational line near the end of the first verse in “Anti-Hero”—“When my depression works the graveyard shift.”
Removed from the song's context, the entire line is, “When my depression works the graveyard shift, all of the people I’ve ghosted stand there in the room.” But it is that admission—all of Swift’s admissions, really, but here it is the evocative use of the phrase graveyard shift, and the acknowledgment that sometimes there is a sadness that, while present during the day, can, and often does, follow us well into the night.
Meet me at midnight.
It’s the first thing Taylor Swift says on the album—not even an ask, really. Maybe an invitation. Maybe a command. And in the days and weeks since we first met her at midnight, all huddled around our respective devices, streaming the album from our preferred service, either with the company of others who were as excited about the release as we were, or alone, sitting at a dining room table in a dimly lit part of the house, and we continue to meet her at midnight.
Similar to what Swift sings early in the album, working the concept of “midnights” in where she is able, Midnights become our afternoons, too.
Midnights is an album that, as a whole, can be quite restless sometimes in both how it handles the larger thematic elements that Swift wanted to write about, and the arranging and aesthetics used to get those elements across. During my initial listen to the album as it premiered, the placement of both “Lavender Haze” and “Maroon” back to back is a bit of misdirection on Swift’s part because I, for sure, thought, and actually kind of hoped at that moment, that the entire album was going to be sonically just that fucking heavy.
Midnights is an album that, as a whole, is an album that never quite gets comfortable with itself, but maybe in the discomfort of sleepless nights and what keeps one awake, that’s the point. It can be quite a restless listen the further you get into it, and in that restlessness, or that desire to shift into a place where the material is slightly more accessible or at least less murky and shadowy, Midnights ultimately ends up walking this line between having this sense of immediacy, contrasted with moments where a lot more time is needed with specific songs to open themselves up more.
In many cases, the tracks you, perhaps initially, had some misgivings about, come to grow on you in surprising ways.
The expression “sexy baby,” which you, perhaps initially, had many misgivings about, grows on you in surprising ways.
But that is the thing with pop music. Like, “pop music” that is often supposed to be bright and bold and infectious—if it is well made, it eventually works its way into your brain and you can begin to appreciate it a little more, regardless of what your initial impressions may have been.
Midnights is commendable, even when it is less successful or doesn’t land at all (looking at “Bejeweled” and “Glitch” specifically here) because Swift, as a songwriter and artist, is at a place in her career where she can take risks, or challenge her listeners in some way, and the risk often works out in her favor. Upon its release in 2017, Reputation was somewhat polarizing for listeners because it was a departure from the brighter-sounding pop she had begun crafting—given time, though, it has found an audience that has come around to understanding and appreciating it more.
Midnights will, more than likely, not require four or five years until it finds its following, and I think that this is in part to Swift’s audience, or at least a majority of her listenership, growing and maturing along with her—the people that found Swift early in her career, and were perhaps close to her in age are now in their late 20s or early 30s. Swift is still making pop music, yes, that is often youthful or exuberant at times, but there is an impressive maturation in how she has been doing it over the last few years.
Admittedly, Midnights can lose its way—the momentum and focus becoming a little less evident in the album’s second half, and much has been made in the days and weeks since its release regarding how slick Antonoff’s production can be—perhaps, at times, weighing songs down more than necessary when the album, as a whole, runs a risk of buckling under the pressure of its own enormous ambitions and conceit.
It falters, yes, but Swift never said she was perfect, nor should we have that kind of expectation from her. In “Anti-Hero,” she sings, “I’ll stare directly at the sun, but never in the mirror,” and Swift has, recently, said she struggles with the idea of “not feeling like a person,” which is the kind of statement that, as my therapist would say, is a lot to unpack.
Some days you are the sexy baby; other days, you are the monster on the hill. Regardless of how Swift, or you, or me, may feel about ourselves in any given moment, Midnights is an often unabashedly frank exploration and reminder that Taylor Swift is human, and these are her lived experiences—moments that are tender, or rollicking, or full of the kind of regret that keeps us awake at night. Regardless of how seen, attacked, both, or neither you feel by this material, it is an ambitious, impressive reflection on highs, lows, and everything in between—the funny, the sad, the awkward, and weird—and it presents the opportunity for us, as listeners, in continuing to meet Taylor Swift at the specific time she has asked us to, think about the midnights of our own.
1- So, like, there is no way to really work such a complaint/first world problem into the narrative of this piece, but I felt like I did need to mention how botch of a rollout and experience I had (and perhaps others did as well) with pre-ordering the album—specifically on vinyl—from Taylor Swift’s online store. I was under the impression that the special editions of Midnights, pressed onto different colors of vinyl, and with alternate cover artwork, were exclusives to her site; that was not the case, and all of them were readily available at Target on the day of the album’s release. Additionally, my order did not ship for well over a week after the release date. And I try to be patient in situations like this because I understand that people working in whatever Universal Music Group warehouse are probably overworked and treated poorly; regardless, a shipping label had been created, and sat for, like, a week, before the record made its way out the door, and because I am so petty, and caught up in material things, despite my efforts not to be, it is things like this that sometimes sour my feelings about an album or artist as a whole.
2. Okay, so, like I have not watched any of the accompanying videos that have been released for songs from Midnights, but I am aware of the moment in the video for “Anti-Hero” where Swift steps onto the bathroom scale and it simply reads the word “Fat,” and a number of people took issue with that immediately, and within a week, Swift removed it from the video.