OK, Swifties. You liked the fairytale fictions and indie-cred boast of Taylor Swift’s pandemic alt-folk records. But you’ve been yearning for the intimacy you felt when she knocked out those confessional bangers, haven’t you? Well, the wait is over. Playing Midnights will make you feel as though you’re sleeping over at her house while she spills secrets and settles scores into the night. Over a series of murky electronic grooves (mostly co-written with Jack Antonoff), the pop star unpacks her darkest dreams, deepest doubts and cruellest thoughts. All the while she keeps things just cryptic enough to keep the tension crackling and the speculation buzzing.
That said, she’s already stopped speculation about the opening track, “Lavender Haze”. “Gaylor” fans who’ve stuck (rather doggedly) to a queer reading of Swift had hoped that the song might be a coming-out track because of the colour’s long association with gay culture. But in an Instagram post, Swift explained that she had happened upon the phrase while watching Mad Men and found it was vintage slang for a dreamy love glow. Against the throb of a synth bass, she appears to be addressing the misogynistic media obsession with whether or not she’s marrying actor boyfriend Joe Alwyn, with whom she’s been settled since 2016. “All they keep asking me / Is if I’m gonna be your bride / The only kinda girl they see / Is a one night or a bride” she notes (you can hear the eye-roll). But as the vocal layers build, she shakes off the judgement effortlessly: “Talk your talk and go viral / I just need this love to spiral.”
The slower, grimier texture of “Maroon” is a dive back into a past relationship (place your bets). Describing the affair, Swift sings of it decaying from the initial pink of cheap rosé to the “rust that grew between telephones”.
She’s on her best, self-scrutinising storytelling form on the excellent “Anti-Hero”, which lyrically sends zinger after zinger bubbling up through the fuzz of distortion. She unpicks the unwieldiness of her stardom with terrific, surreal imagery. “Sometimes I feel like everyone is a sexy baby / And I’m the monster on the hill / Too big to hang out / Slowly lurching towards your city / Pierced through the heart but never killed.” She skewers her acts of public kindness, too: “Did you hear my covert narcissism / I disguise as altruism / Like some kind of congressman?”
Things get funnier as the singer, whose fortune is estimated at about $500m, slur-growls: “I have this dream my daughter-in-law kills me for the money / She thinks I left them in the will / The family gathers round and reads it / And then someone screams out ‘She’s laughing up at us from hell!’” Swift lays into her “niceness” again on the poppier swell of “Bejeweled”, on which she warns a guy that she has the capacity to light up rooms (and all the boys in the band) if he doesn’t pay more attention.
“You’re on Your Own, Kid” digs into a catchy-cute guitar melody – flecked with pretty pings that echo her early pop – as Swift looks back on the days when she sang her songs in the parking lot. Lines about starving her body, hoping for the perfect kiss, are a nod to her Romeo and Juliet teen dreams. This sweetness is balanced by the vocal distortions and rhythmic lurches of “Midnight Rain”, on which Swift revels in her role as a heartbreaker. By the time she gets to noirish rap “Vigilante S**t”, she’s relishing her shadow-self, ripping into a cheating lover. “I don’t dress for women / I don’t dress for men,” goes her predatory purr. “Lately, I’ve been dressing for revenge.” As ever, Swift drops just enough filmic detail to conjure a scene: an envelope handed to a wife who’s now driving her ex’s Benz. And there’s some classy-sharp wordplay about the guy who was “doing lines/ and crossing all of mine”. Through it all, the low vibration of the synth is stalked by the treble rattle of a snare drum. The effect is of a woman in stilettos hunting a shadow.
There’s been some excitement online about the teased track “Karma”. Many thought it would address her spat with Kanye West, and that it might have been taken from an album lost during that time. But the swipes at a “spiderboy, king of thieves” waving a “web of opacity” would suggest it’s about her ex, Spider-Man star Jake Gyllenhaal (who famously dumped her by text, breaking her heart and inspiring the album Red, which she recently re-recorded). The album ends with “Mastermind”, which seems to be about Alwyn again – and includes a confession that, like “all wise women”, she engineered some aspects of their romance. “I’m only cryptic and Machiavellian because I care…” Ha.
The subtle melodies of Midnights take time to sink their claws in. But Swift’s feline vocal stealth and assured lyrical control ensure she keeps your attention. Turn the lights off and let these songs prowl around you. Just don’t expect their meanings to settle too biddably into your lap. Swift’s always as elusive as she is allusive.
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