Let‘s start with that speech. In September 2022, as Taylor Swift accepted Songwriter-Artist of the Decade honors on the Nashville Songwriter Awards, the headline was that Swift had unveiled an admittedly “dorky” system she’d developed for organizing her own songs. Quill Pen, Fountain Pen, Glitter Gel Pen: three categories of lyrics, three imagined tools with which she wrote them, one pretty ingenious approach to invite obsessive fans to lovingly obsess all of the more.
And yet, perhaps the true takeaway was the style through which she spoke about her craft that night, some 20 years after writing her first song on the age of 12. “I like doing this thing we’re fortunate enough to call a job,” she said to a room of her peers. “Writing songs is my life’s work and my hobby and my never-ending thrill. A song can defy logic or time. A very good song transports you to your truest feelings and translates those feelings for you. A very good song stays with you even when people or feelings don’t.”
On Midnights, her tenth LP and fourth in as a few years—should you don’t count the 2 she’s just rerecorded and buttressed with dozens of additional tracks—Swift feels like she’s really having fun with her work, twiddling with language like kids do with gum, thrilling to the feel of each turn of phrase, the charge in every melody and satisfying rhyme. Alongside longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff, she’s set out here to inform “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout [her] life,” as she phrased it in a message to Apple Music subscribers. It’s an idea that naturally calls for a nocturnal palette: slower tempos, hushed atmosphere, negative space like night sky.
The sound is fully modern (synths you’d need to eat or sleep in, low end that sits comfortably in your chest), while the aesthetic (soft focus, wood paneling, tracklist on the quilt) is decidedly mid-century, very like the Mad Men-inspired title of its brooding opener, “Lavender Haze”—a song about finding refuge within the glow of intimacy. “Talk your talk and go viral,” she sings, in reference to the maelstrom of outdoor interest in her six-year relationship with actor Joe Alwyn. “I just want this love spiral.” (An enormous shout to Antonoff for those spongy backup vocals, btw.)
Largely, Midnights is a record of interiors, Swift letting us glimpse the chaos inside her head (“Anti-Hero,” wall-to-wall zingers) and the stillness of her relationship (“Sweet Nothing,” co-written by Alwyn under his William Bowery pseudonym). For “Snow on the Beach,” she teams up with Lana Del Rey—an artist whose instinct for mood and theatrical framing seems to have influenced Swift’s recent catalog—recalling the magic of an unimaginable night over a backdrop of pizzicato violin, sleigh bells, and dreamy Mellotron, just like the earliest hours of Christmas morning. “I’ve never seen someone lit from inside,” Swift sings. “Blurring out my periphery.”
But then there’s “Bejeweled,” a late, 1989-like highlight on which she publicizes to an unappreciative partner, a number of seconds in: “And by the best way, I’m going out tonight.” After which out Swift goes, striding through the middle of the song like she would the room: “I can still make the entire place shimmer,” she sings, relishing that last word. “And once I meet the band, they ask, ‘Do you’ve a person?’/I could still say, ‘I don’t remember.’” There are traces of melancholy layered in (see: “sapphire tears on my face”), however the song seems like a triumph, the form of unabashed, extroverted fun that may have probably seemed misplaced within the lockdown indie of 2020’s folklore and evermore. But here, side by side with songs and scenes of such writerly indulgence, it’s right at home—more proof that the terms “singer-songwriter” and “universal pop star” aren’t mutually exclusive ideas. “What’s a woman gonna do?” Swift asks at its climax. “A diamond’s gotta shine.”
This special expanded version of Midnights includes seven additional songs.