Ah, the joys of writing a less-than-effusive Taylor Swift review that won’t get enough clicks for the Swiftie horde to come after me.
Which… now has me thinking that this may be connected to the fact that the initial reviews of Midnights were a tad bit more glowing than I think it deserved. Either way, I take some relief in being able to review this album a bit removed from its much-hyped release and take it a bit more for what it is, which is a perfectly solid Taylor Swift album, but not quite the “instant classic” that Rolling Stone declared it.
As Taylor Swift communicated to both her ardent fans and more casual fans like myself who just wanted to hear the damn songs, Midnights was described in a masterful bit of self-marketing as “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life”. In the hopes of achieving this nocturnal sound, she reteamed with producer Jack Antonoff, who has already more or less made an album with this conceit in Lorde’s Melodrama. But hey, why not just have Jack do what Jack does with an artist he’s already worked with before?
If you’ve kept any sort of tabs on my music reviews these past few years, you’ll be able to detect that this last comment was more than a bit sarcastic. As I’ve said time and time again, Antonoff is a good producer to work with as a one-off, in the hope of infusing some unconventional pop into an artist’s milieu that could use such a thing. However, whenever he works with an artist for a second or third time it’s always diminishing returns, and for the love of god, I don’t know how fucking long we have to keep doing this before high-profile artists actually figure this out. But maybe it’s just that he’s a really nice guy, which seems hard to find in the music biz.
For whatever reservations I have about Antonoff, I still do recognize the talent that this man has. He even produced an album that I liked this year from a band that I’m somewhat apathetic about with The 1975’s Being Funny In A Foreign Language. But that was another case where an artist was looking for someone to come in and add a new element to the band, whereas Midnights sees Jack working with a longtime friend and mostly just rehashing territory they’ve already covered before. He’s done his particular synth-pop thing with Taylor before on 1989, Reputation, and Lover, and even though there is a decidedly more ruminative bent to these songs that feel pretty perfect for his production style, that’s also sort of the problem.
I could go down a rabbit hole questioning whether it’s possible to make great art with your friends or if all collaboration should have some element of combativeness. But, I probably owe Taylor herself some words, not that she’s someone who finds them hard to come by. As for the actual songwriting on the album, her lyrics continue to show how she really took things to a whole other level on Folklore/Evermore by weaving tiny human details into her songs without the demand of also weaving them into big pop hooks. However, unlike those two albums, Midnights feels a little like she has re-inserted her personal life into the front and center of her songs, which I suppose is one of the things that her fans loved about her songwriting back when her life was at least somewhat relatable. However, I have a fairly low threshold for Taylor exhaustion (even if her talent and shrewdness is undeniable), so I appreciated the way Taylor often wrote about other people than herself on Folkmore while also not straying completely from her Easter egg-laden cannon.
That all said, there are moments on Midnights when Taylor’s self-reflection and Antonoff’s knack for subtle bangers totally click. For the first time in a long time, Taylor actually put out singles that are two of the best songs on the album with “Anti-Hero” and “Bejeweled”, which feel like two sides of whatever imposter syndrome Taylor may be grappling with. Also, the back half of the album has some great downbeat little reflective songs that feel a little more interested in emotional honesty than just vibe, which the first half is sometimes smothered by.
Additionally, I do have to give props to Taylor for putting out what is probably her most musically and thematically cohesive album, even if it sometimes makes the songs blend into each other a bit too much. The fact that she’s still doing a decent job of not repeating herself while also having to cater to the unquenchable demands of her fans and the public is nice to see, even if one can’t help but wonder how this album would’ve sounded if she’d pushed herself just a little more and worked with someone other than Jack. Either way, there’s nothing like a Taylor Swift album release (or potentially monopoly-busting mega-tour) to get everybody listening and talking about one particular artist, which is such a rarity these days that you have to step back and appreciate it, even if her ubiquity sometimes makes it a little hard to.
Favorite Tracks: “Anti-Hero”, “Sweet Nothing”, “Mastermind”