“What if I told you I was a mastermind?” Taylor Swift drops the query on her listeners on the closing track of Midnights proper1, and some days it would be hard to refute the implicit claim. Within 24 hours of dropping the album on streaming services, Swift collected three separate Guinness World Records: the most streamed album on Spotify in 24 hours (184.6 million), the most one-day album streams on Spotify (184.6 million), and the most streamed act on Spotify within 24 hours (228 million streams). Variety reported that Midnights became the first album in five years to register one million units in a week. The last album to reach that mark? Taylor Swift’s Reputation. Midnights, however, achieved that mark in a mere three days. As this is written, Taylor Swift became the first recording artist to hold each of Billboard’s Top 10 slots on a week’s Hot 100 chart. 

Within this same period, Twitter and TikTok have been awash in interpretive theories, with ardent fans combing lyrics for meaning and messages, reading Midnights over against, alongside, and through the previous Swiftian corpus. During a recent conversation about the album on the CBC’s q with Tom Power, music critic Elamin Abdelmahmoud spoke of the “intertextuality” of Taylor Swift’s songwriting, pointing out how her albums function as interconnected links that build upon each other, amplify and clarify, and interpret one another. In the same conversation, his fellow critic Niko Stratis claimed that Swift does a lot of “world-building” in her songwriting. These characteristics feed the streams of interpretation, forming a real-time pop music form of midrash. In the shadow of this cultural constellation, it can be difficult to assess the album itself. 

Dear reader, let’s start here: it is very good. 

Returning to the question from “Mastermind”, it is precisely this calculated savvy, in combination with the confessional vulnerability of her songwriting, that renders Taylor Swift™ so compelling. Even within “Mastermind”, Swift tips her hand in the direction of this dialectic. Yes, there is calculation, but it intertwines with the experience of surviving as a woman in a patriarchal world: “You see all the wisest women had to do it this way / Cause we were born to be the pawn in every lover’s game.”

Her further confessions unlock the trauma that often manifests as an obsession with control. It speaks to the ways in which our need to be loved as we are spurs connections, some healthy and some unhealthy. Swift (along with frequent collaborator and co-producer Jack Antonoff) has produced a meticulously crafted pop album circulating around the hopes, fears, regrets, and self-recrimination that often haunt our midnights. But how revealing is this carefully crafted confessional? This question and how Taylor Swift weaves her art within its web connect so clearly with her fans and listeners. As Swift writes, “…I swear I’m only cryptic and Machiavellian because I care.”

With Midnights—her tenth studio album—Swift has crafted a concept album around the question, “What keeps you up at night?” Within the 13 tracks, she mines those sleepless hours and the intrusive thoughts that disrupt her and—by connection—us. Like a restless mind, the album jumps from regrets to the glow of infatuation, to self-loathing, to self-assertion, and to ruminating about past decisions. Part of the album’s power is how it enacts how our adult selves are inextricably marked and intertwined with—but never completely defined by—our childhood and adolescence. Midnights was released almost 16 years to the day after the release of Taylor Swift, her very first album. At 32, Taylor Swift reflects on the ghosts of the past and maps the rarely straightforward journey of fully becoming one’s self.

Midnights is an example of pristine popcraft, weaving these intrusive thought themes within a gauzy dream-pop/synthpop tapestry that evokes the shifting shades of the night. Taylor Swift is a gifted wordsmith adept at the art of pop hooks, and she and producer and collaborator Jack Antonoff are masterful in pop structure and tools. The opener, “Lavender Haze”, kicks off with a hazy, drum-machine club beat while Swift asks us to “meet [her] at midnight”. The infectiously danceable tune hypnotizes while the heft of the theme settles in. Swift wrestles with the tension between the euphoria of love within a relationship (the so-called “lavender haze”) and the patriarchal gender expectations that reduce adult women to either “…one night or a wife”. “Lavender Haze” rejects the binary and explores relational territory outside the confines of someone else’s map.

In “Maroon”, she engages in colorful wordplay within a moody dream-pop beat meditation on loves lost and distance that metastasizes into fault lines. Color here hints at intensity and depth (“so scarlet it was maroon”), marking Swift’s hard-won wisdom. It reads like an ongoing reflection on Red, which in its own deeply confessional singer-songwriter tracks is, as my colleague Matthew Dwyer pointed out,  itself a nod to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, a glimpse at both Taylor Swift’s influences and her legacy ambitions. 

“Anti-Hero” is the musical and emotional heart of this album. An infectious synthpop beat foregrounds Swift’s confession, “I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser.” She wraps the interplay of self-recrimination and self-loathing within an upbeat tune haunted by those she’s ghosted, depressive thoughts, confessions of narcissism masking as altruism, and fear that her relationships are transactional. As a “monster on a hill”, she gestures at the awkwardness of relationships and the impossibility of blending in as one of America’s biggest cultural figures.

The perfect hook within “Anti-Hero” sets this song apart. “It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem. It’s me.” is equal parts perfect earworm and emotional ice pick to the heart. Swift’s and Antonoff’s use of rhythm and timing, emphasis, and breath breaks within the enunciation of this line are superb. Swift has an ear for the strengths and limitations of her voice, and she utilizes them to powerful effect within this album. “Sweet Nothing”, a song co-written with boyfriend Joe Alwyn using the pseudonym William Bowery is another example of this. Swift is not Adele, nor does she attempt to be within her music. Her abilities to enunciate and play with where the emphatic accent falls become rhythmic instruments. Mid-song, she breaks the spell cast between the upbeat pop of the song and the self-recriminating hook. Swift interrupts the confession’s cadence, changing the emphases and timing so the listener can discern the pain and shame fueling the insecurity. It is powerful and disruptive, letting the full emotional weight register before the imminently danceable beat resumes.

Other notable songs appear to be in conversation with past selves. “You’re on You’re Own, Kid” presents battle-scarred advice to a younger self. One imagines the earnest protagonist of “You Belong to Me” from Fearless, whose steadfast longing for completion looks like self-harm in the rearview mirror: “I hated parties and starved my body / Like I’d be saved by the perfect kiss.” The perceptive narrator proclaims that her younger self is “on your own, kid / You always have been.” It is less an indictment than a gentle urging that she is enough. She always has been.

Other engagements with past selves are just plain fun. “Vigilante Shit” is pure petty Taylor, a throwback to the Reputation era of “Look What You Made Me Do”. But here, within the midnight spell, petty Taylor doesn’t reach for any causal crutches to explain her behavior. She owns her full agency to wreak havoc. Others may be dressing for the weekend. She’s dressing for revenge. 

Similarly, “Bejeweled” is a song about agency and the straining against the frequent tendency of relationships to expect a dulling of one’s self in service to the pair. Here Taylor flexes her autonomy, fully recognizing her power and purpose to shine. Her full agency checks any attempt to clip her wings for the sake of a relationship. She could, after all, shimmer and demonstrate her essential freedom by answering, “I don’t remember,” to inquiries implying constriction to a relationship. Cue Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” and give it some glitter. There’s a party going on.

There are no major missteps within the album, although not everything works as well as the album’s brightest spots. It’s difficult to call such a beautiful song like “Snow on the Beach” a let-down given its quiet beauty and arresting imagery on the experience of falling for someone else: “I’ve never seen someone lit from within / Blurring out my periphery. Yet, given the anticipation when announced of a collaboration between Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey on this song, the result leaves the listener wondering what could have been had the full vocal stylings of the two interacted more completely. Del Rey shares songwriting credit and no doubt shapes the profound imagery within, but vocally, she is reduced to the background,  almost indistinguishable from Swift’s own recorded backing vocals. This collaboration is a Taylor Swift song in sound and execution. Ironically, “Labyrinth” stretches Swift’s sound as it exudes some distinctly Phoebe Bridgers vibes in the vocals.

The 13 songs that comprise Midnights form a reflective, definitive pop statement that finds Taylor Swift emerging from the indie folk stylings of folklore and evermore back into pop dominance, deepening and broadening her sound. In addition to the album, Taylor Swift had promised her fans a 3 AM surprise, and—three hours after the album dropped—seven additional tracks from the Midnights session were released: “The Great War”, “Bigger Than the Whole Sky”, “Paris”, “High Infidelity”, “Glitch”, “Would’ve. Could’ve. Should’ve.”, and “Dear Reader”. 

They are an impressive set of songs. The first, fourth, and sixth of the bonus songs were co-written and co-produced by Aaron Dessner of the National, who had a hand in the folklore and evermore albums. However, they are not as consistently strong from top to bottom as the first 13. “Glitch” is sensuous electronica but feels incomplete. “Bigger Than the Whole Sky” is a touching ode to loss whose quiet beauty would be a better thematic fit for other albums in her body of work. A song like “Paris” is a solid pop output more in line with earlier Swift albums and would seem like a step back had it been included in the more mature, darker Midnights.

The one song in the bonus material with the heft to compete for a slot in the original album is “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve”. Placed strategically as track 19 on the extended edition of the album, it is one of Taylor Swift’s darkest and rawest confessional pieces. Arguably, it is equal parts confession and condemnation of innocence stolen by an older, manipulative man grooming and emotionally abusing a much younger woman. The song alludes to dancing with the devil at 19, leading fans to connect this song with Speak Now’s “Dear John”, written from the perspective of a 19-year-old teen and ostensibly referring to John Mayer, who was 32 at the time he was in a relationship with a 19-year-old Swift. “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” is an unflinching reckoning with the deeper awareness of the now older narrator’s scars at the hands of a casually cruel, manipulative adult. Cast in the language of religious imagery (“You’re a crisis of my faith” and “The tomb won’t close, stained glass windows in my mind”), this song is a brutally painful counterpart to Carole King‘s tentative and vulnerable “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” There are experiences we can’t undo, but Swift finds and leads the way forward through unflinching truth-telling. Her agency was wounded but not stolen. 

In Midnights, we find an artist fully coming into her own in adulthood. Taylor Swift demonstrates her mastery of pop structure and style and, combined with her lyrical depth and openness to genre experimentation, places herself firmly in the conversation as her generation’s counterpart to luminaries like Mitchell and King. On Midnights she invites us into the gossamer haze of her sleepless nights, and we are all the better for the journey. 

1.   The album, as initially announced and conceived, has 13 tracks. Swift dropped a bonus 3 AM edition three hours after Midnights’ release. This review will reference both editions. However, the rating will apply to the 13 tracks of the album without the bonus material.

Rick Quinn

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