On Taylor Swift’s ‘Midnights,’ The Soundtrack Is Different But The Story Remains The Same

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Taylor Swift’s tenth studio album is a new book from your favorite author. Midnights arrived as new books often do — with a front cover interesting enough to catch a reader’s eye and a description of its contents compelling enough for them to commit to spending time with it. With no singles and a multitude of front and back covers, the latter of which assemble to form a clock, Swift captured her audience’s attention with an underlying wonder: “What keeps you up at night?”

Swift posed the question in a statement shared after the album’s release. “It’s a momentary glimmer of distraction,” she wrote. “The tiniest notion of reminiscent thought that wanders off into wondering, the spark that lights a tinderbox of fixation. And now it is irreversible. The flame has caught. You’re wide awake.” Introspection, by nature, is deeply personal and consequently requires an expansive familiarity with the subject matter and what came before it. You have to spend time thinking deeply about the past to know which parts of it you’re still stuck on. Midnights encourages this in more ways than one. Using musical reference points as a device for reflection, the album builds an eerie, dreamlike sense on first listen that you’ve heard it before. And in a way, you have.

Swift as an artist, particularly in recent years, has increasingly orchestrated how her music is consumed, to ensure that it’s in the way that she wants it to be heard with the references she wants connections drawn to. With Evermore, her ninth album, clear instructions ordered its pairing with Folklore, its sister album released just under five months prior. On Midnights, the directive is slightly more convoluted. Across the 13-track album — which the singer expanded with seven additional songs shared three hours after its release as Midnights (3am Edition) — Swift draws sonic and lyrical allusions to her entire post-Red discography, which contains seven releases including the Taylor’s Version rerecordings of Fearless and Red.

The common thread binding most of the projects together, beyond Swift’s familiar narrative voice, is her collaborative partnership with Jack Antonoff, who built most of the synth-pop worlds on both 1989 and Lover in addition to riding through the odd detour of Reputation and assisting in a masterful revival on Folklore and Evermore. On Midnights, the self-referential call-backs are poignant. “Question…?” interpolates 1989 single “Out Of The Woods” while “Snow On The Beach,” which (barely) features Lana Del Rey, is uncannily similar to Folklore’s “Illicit Affairs.” Meanwhile, “Maroon” picks up melodic influences from Reputation’s “King Of My Heart” and “Lavender Haze,” which opens the album, blends seamlessly into Lover’s “I Think He Knows.” Antonoff, who co-wrote and co-produced the entirety of Midnights barring three of the bonus tracks, is credited on all but one of the aforementioned references.

Swift’s album drops have a tendency to feel like the world’s most public-facing private event — inescapable, but not necessarily easily accessible, like pop music’s own personal MET Gala. Midnights, especially, mirrors the nature of this. Small pieces of information about the album were shared on a rolling basis in the lead up to its arrival in place of unveiling any grand details in any one moment, each crumb becoming its own universe to be prodded and dissected for clues towards the singer’s next musical scheme. For those who managed to keep up, pressing play on the album opened up the universes within her universes — as though cracking the spine on a novel written by an author whose past releases sit on the shelf, tattered and worn down from excessive reading and rereading.

When looking at its connection to Swift’s other capital “P” pop records, Midnights feels like the cleanup after the party — more subdued and aware, like walking out into the night and being shocked back into your body by the cool air, but not completely shaken of its love drunk haze (“Sweet Nothing” and “Maroon”). Then comes the sudden remembrances that question the what-ifs of the past (“Question…?” and “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve”) and the comebacks cooked up long after the argument had come to an end, repackaged as not-so-final sendoffs to her enemies (“Karma” and “Vigilante Shit”). When she looks inward, watching a sizzle reel of the small interactions that added up to self-defining moments, it’s through a critical lens that reveals hard truths (“Anti-Hero” and “You’re On Your Own, Kid”).

There are instances throughout almost the entirety of Midnights in which the songs are authored in a way that makes it difficult to decipher whether they’re autobiographical, or part of Swift’s elaborate fictional world-building. There’s no “based on a true story” page ahead of the preface. The epilogue of additional tracks — which the singer likened to the “From The Vault” songs that appear on her rerecordings — only creates more mystery. Has she really not moved on from these experiences, or is she imagining what it would have been like and who she would have become if she hadn’t? Which were her own to begin with, and which were observed from afar?

There are old and new characters with familiar traits, the most prominent being the hopeless romantic and the young girl turned grown woman still figuring out how to be okay with making mistakes. There are parties and cities that we’ve visited in her musical world before and a canvas blank enough for someone else to fill in the missing details. And it seems as though she prefers it this way, leaving room for wonder and speculation knowing she has no intention of providing straightforward answers. More often than not, at this point in her career, the consumption model of Swift’s music leaves the listener to instead question: “How can I make this about me?”

They look inward, too. Wasn’t that the goal in asking what keeps them up at night? To get them to dig through the crevices of their own past while listening to a version of her own? The creator-consumer relationship, in this instance, relies on both parties maintaining a sense of trust between one another in order to move towards an honest answer. It’s the only way that Swift can write everyone else’s story in tandem with her own, but it requires a bit of studying. These records are not sequels, but they aren’t standalone novels, either.

When Midnights references back to Swift’s past albums, it surfaces the memories of hearing those songs for the first time and establishes a point of comparison to the feeling of hearing them in these newly repackaged forms. Similar, but different. Older, though not necessarily wiser. It’s the same way that five different songs from five different Swift records can be used in fandom edits of the same film and television scenes album cycle after album cycle. The soundtrack is different, but the story remains the same.

Midnights isn’t necessarily a redefining release within Swift’s own discography, or even within the current arena of pop that is crowded with Antonoff’s other collaborators (Del Rey, Lorde, and most recently The 1975) as much as it is with the rising generation of Swifties-turned-singer/songwriters pulling pages from her past books. But it is a more explicitly functional record that is profound for those who need it to be. It’s a poetic choose your own adventure novel colliding with a guide to self-help written with a slick pen and distributed to the masses — though not without an important caveat. “Never take advice from someone who’s falling apart,” Swift insists on “Dear Reader,” the closing track on Midnights (3am Edition), adding: “You should find another guiding light, guiding light / But I shine so bright.”

Midnights is out now via Republic. Get it here.