Taylor Swift 'Midnights': The return of a pop mastermind

Taylor Swift ‘Midnights’: The return of a pop mastermind

Taylor Swift’s pin-sharp new album, “Midnights,” closes with a song in which the pop superstar patiently explains to someone — perhaps many millions of someones — that their intimate relationship wasn’t a product of kismet but of design.

“I laid the groundwork,” she sings over a blippy electronic groove, her voice edging slightly ahead of the beat, “and then just like clockwork the dominoes cascaded in a line.” The tune is called “Mastermind,” which is what Swift calls herself in the chorus, neatly rhyming the word with “now you’re mine.” And plenty of its characteristic detail can make you think she’s describing a romance. But “Mastermind” is also about Swift’s one-of-a-kind career — about the deliberation and the ingenuity of the moves that took the 32-year-old from being a teenage country phenom to being one of the two or three biggest acts in all of music.

“No one wanted to play with me as a little kid,” she sings near the end of “Mastermind,” which might be the saddest and funniest line on an LP teeming with both kinds, “so I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since to make them love me and make it seem effortless.” (Take a second to savor the intricate rhythm of those words before you’ve even heard them set to music.)

Pondering the delights and the anxieties of her own celebrity has been a hallmark of Swift’s work for years — or at least it was until 2020, when she set aside much of the autobiographical life-of-a-pop-star stuff for the ostensibly fictional character-driven narratives of her twin pandemic albums, “Folklore” and “Evermore.” Full of songs about small-town grifters and awkward high-school kids and unhappily married people — even a murderer — those projects also radically recast her sound, veering away from the synthed-up productions that sent her up the Hot 100 toward a rootsy, mostly acoustic vibe she formed with Aaron Dessner of the indie-rock band the National.

Swift suggests that the isolation of the pandemic had set her imagination free; certainly, the music’s smaller scale reflected the demands of remote collaboration. Yet “Midnights,” her 10th studio full-length, returns to an earlier Swift mode in both sonic and lyrical terms: This 13-track set, which she produced with her longtime creative partner Jack Antonoff, feels like it picks up right where 2014’s “1989” and 2017’s “Reputation” left off, with slick, beat-heavy arrangements that seem dimly aware of hip-hop’s existence and with lyrics peppered with juicy allusions to Swift’s various high-profile feuds and love affairs. (“Lover,” from 2019, plays even more now than it did then like a transitional effort between phases of Swift’s career.)

It’s easy in a sense to understand why she took this approach, given that she spent 2021 rerecording her albums “Fearless” and “Red” as part of a plan to create new versions of the LPs she lost partial control of when her old record label changed hands. As meticulous a diarist as pop has ever known, Swift has clearly been thinking — thinking more than usual — about her journey and about her younger selves; “Nothing New,” one of many freshly recorded outtakes she included on “Red (Taylor’s Version),” captures a woman in her 30s confronting her 20-something suspicions about how her chosen industry would treat her as she aged out of ingenue-hood .

“Midnights” opens with the steamy, R&B-adjacent “Lavender Haze,” in which Swift laments the scrutiny she’s under as a famous person dating another famous person (in her case, the English actor Joe Alwyn); the song — co-written by and featuring background vocals from the actress Zoë Kravitz — seeks a safe space removed from a realm where her loose talk threatens to “go viral,” as she puts it. In “Anti-Hero,” over Antonoff’s buzzing synths and booming ’80s-rock drums, she weighs the public’s harshest opinions of her, copping to a “covert narcissism” and admitting that sometimes she feels like “a monster on the hill … slowly lurching toward your favorite city.”

The vocal performances on “Midnights” are among the strongest of Swift’s career — she’s playing with cadence and emphasizing the grain of her voice like never before.

(Beth Garrabrant)

The vicious and shimmering “Karma” seemingly takes aim at the powerful music executive Scooter Braun, who engineered the label purchase that spawned Swift’s rerecording enterprise: “Spiderboy, king of thieves / Weave your little webs of opacity,” she sings — heed the conspicuous “S” and “B” in “Spiderboy” — before describing what she views as her cosmic advantage with a series of vivid metaphors: “Karma is my boyfriend / Karma is a god / Karma is the breeze in my hair on the weekend. ” The breeze in her hair on the weekend! Good night, Spiderboy.

Swift’s storytelling impulse isn’t dead on “Midnights,” which she’s said grew out of her bent toward wee-hours contemplation. “Midnight Rain,” a slow and woozy number with pitch-shifted vocals, narrates a tale of a guy and a girl with differing life goals, neither of whom appear to be Swift or Alwyn; ditto “Maroon,” in which the guy and girl get drunk off her roommate’s “cheap-ass screw-top rosé.” Then there’s the pulpy, Billie Eilish-ish “Vigilante S—,” about a woman who helps a betrayed wife get revenge on her dirtbag husband.

A woman reclines on a sofa in a wood-paneled room

As meticulous a diarist as pop has ever known, Swift has clearly been thinking about her journey and about her younger selves.

(Beth Garrabrant)

Yet the songwriting and the vocal performances here are so strong — she’s playing with cadence and emphasizing the grain of her voice like never before — that eventually you stop caring what’s drawn directly from Swift’s real life and what’s not. It’s just a pleasure to get lost in tunes like “Labyrinth,” in which the singer explores her fear of falling in love again, and “Snow on the Beach,” a gorgeous duet with Lana Del Rey with some of the album’s most affecting imagery : “My smile is like I won a contest,” Swift sings in regards to a surprising new fling, and that’s all you need to conjure the precise picture in your head.

She paints another indelible picture in “Mastermind,” referring to herself as “the wind in our free-flowing sails” just after she offers a bit of context for why she’s been so thoroughgoing in her interactions with her boyfriend (or her audience). “All the wisest women had to do it this way ’cause we were born to be the pawn in every lover’s game,” she sings. Then she takes a breath and adds: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Only Swift could make a self-help slogan sound like a fairy tale.

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