It’s one of the weirder aspects of 21st century pop that every major new album feels like a puzzle to be solved. Nothing is ever just announced, promoted, then released. Instead, breadcrumbs of mysterious hints and visual clues are very gradually dropped via the artist’s social media channels. Fans pore over them and formulate excitable theories as to what’s about to happen. Articles are written collating said fans’ theories and weighing up their potential veracity. Sometimes, it goes on longer than the actual album’s stay in the charts. It has certainly happened with Taylor Swift’s 10th studio album, Midnights. Everything has been pored over for potential information about its contents, up to and including the kind of eye shadow she wears on the album cover. Conspiracy theories have abounded. Space precludes exploring them here, as does concern for your welfare: reading about them makes one’s head hurt a bit.
Still, perhaps it’s inevitable that people are intrigued as to Swift’s next move. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the willingness of big stars to service their fans with more of the same: building an immediately recognizable brand in a world where tens of thousands of new tracks are added to streaming services every day. It’s an approach that Midnights’ one marquee-name guest, Lana Del Rey, knows a lot about, but not one to which Swift has adhered. Instead, she has continually pivoted: from Nashville to New York, pedal steel guitars to fizzing synthesisers, Springsteen-like heartland rock to dubstep-infused pop. Last time she broke cover with new material, she released Folklore and Evermore, two pandemic-fuelled albums of tasteful folk-rock produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner. But that’s no guarantee of her future direction.
In fact, Midnights delivers her firmly from what she called the “folklorian woods” of her last two albums back to electronic pop. There are filtered synth tones, swoops of dubstep-influenced bass, trap and house-inspired beats and effects that warp her voice to a point of androgyny on Midnight Rain and Labyrinth, the latter a leading choice given the preponderance of lyrics that protest gender stereotyping , or “that 1950s shit they want from me”, as Lavender Haze puts it. Equally, something of Folklore and Evermore’s understated nature hangs around Midnights. It’s an album that steadfastly declines to deal in the kind of neon-hued bangers that pop stars usually return with, music brash enough to cut through the hubbub. The sound is misty, atmospheric and tastefully subdued.
On the superb Maroon, Swift’s voice is backed by ambient electronics and droning shoegazey guitars: it’s one of several songs that you feel could suddenly surge into an epic chorus or coda, but never does. The Del Rey collaboration Snow on the Beach is beautifully done – a perfect gene-splice between their two musical styles with a gorgeous melody – but it’s a long way from a grandstanding summit between two pop icons: there’s a striking lightness of touch about it, restrained blending of their voices. Meanwhile, Anti-Hero offers a litany of small-hours self-loathing set to music that feels not unlike the glossy 80s rock found on Swift’s 1989, but with the brightness turned down. There’s an appealing confidence about this approach, a sense that Swift no longer feels she has to compete on the same terms as her peers.
Elsewhere, if the Swift you love is Swift in vengeful mode, settling scores with a side-order of You’re So Vain-esque who’s-this-about? intrigue, you’re advised to fast-forward to Vigilante Shit and Karma: the former features verses that could be directed at her old foes Kanye West or Scooter Braun; the latter excoriates someone referred to as “spiderboy” and notes how they “weave your little webs of opacity, my pennies made your crown”. But Vigilante Shit’s sound is minimal and unflappable – a beat with thin slivers of bass and electronic tones sliding in and out of the mix, not too distant from something Billie Eilish might have devised on her debut album, while Karma is kaleidoscopically tuneful, another track that harks back to 1989: there’s none of the distorted electronic fury that characterized 2017’s supremely pissed-off Reputation. The effect makes Swift’s anger feel less brittle, lending it a dish-served-cold poise.
That confidence is the thing that binds Midnights together. There’s a sure-footedness about Swift’s songwriting, filled with subtle, brilliant touches: the moment on Question…?, where, as they describe a drunken conversation, the lyrics simultaneously speed up their rhythm and stop rhyming; You’re on Your Own, Kid’s fantastic description of a now-famous Swift returning to her home town and feeling like a prom queen, albeit a very specific prom queen: “I looked around in a blood-soaked gown,” she sings, invoking the image of Sissy Spacek about to go postal in Carrie. It’s an album that’s cool, collected and mature. It’s also packed with fantastic songs and at a slight remove from everything else currently happening in pop’s upper echelons. As ever, you wouldn’t like to predict what Taylor Swift will do next, but what she’s doing at the moment is very good indeed.
This week Alexis listened to
Robert Forster – She’s a Fighter
Former Go-Between convenes family band – including son Louis, from the Goon Sax – during wife’s cancer treatment: fabulously taut, drumless angularity ensues.