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In the haze of 'Midnights,' Taylor Swift softens into an expanded sound

The songs on Taylor Swift's 10th album, <em>Midnights</em>, place the listener in the immediate nowhere of private space, where stories can change in a whisper.
Beth Garrabrant
/
Courtesy of the artist
The songs on Taylor Swift's 10th album, Midnights, place the listener in the immediate nowhere of private space, where stories can change in a whisper.

Can Taylor Swift soften up? Like many high-achieving workaholics, I imagine she's lost the instinct and, practical girl, uses enhancements. In the evening, with her lover nearby, does she vape a little Lavender Haze CBD Rosin and focus on the quietude creeping into her body beneath the relentless chatter of her thoughts? Does she grasp his hand and put it on her cheek? On a therapist's couch, does she release her hard-earned dignity and confront the petty little antihero within? Alone with her memories, does she sometimes let them fragment, refusing to untangle them into elegant morality tales and instead staying within their thickets of grief and frustration and desire? And then, in the studio, can she bring a lyric built on questions, turn to her trusted collaborator and say, "I don't care if this song is a hit, I want it to be weird"?

All of these open-ended scenarios — in which a well-tended woman begins to disassemble herself — surface, however obliquely, on Midnights, Swift's 10th and most challenging album. When Swift announced it two months ago, she promised new levels of self-exposure, invoking the classic trope of the midnight confession, music made in the spirit of "the floors we pace and the demons we face," as she said in a statement. And she's delivered, but not by offering many concrete admissions. She's more focused on what such revelations might sound like before they settle into a story to be shared. Accessing the vibes projected by the TikTok confessionalists who are her spiritual children and the genre-agnostic singer-songwriters reconfiguring indie pop and R&B as she once did in country, Swift uses Midnights as a way to rethink the sonic rhetoric of first-person storytelling and shake off habits that have served her artistically and commercially for more than a decade. Sometimes she succeeds; sometimes she hangs on to her old habits. But the attempt intrigues throughout.

Midnights doesn't challenge listeners by aggressively adopting a wide array of new sounds, as did her blockbuster breakthroughs Red and 1989. Nor does it neatly redraw Swift's musical parameters as did folklore, a startling turn upon release that has now proven to be an ideal 21st-century adult contemporary album. On Midnights she worked exclusively with her soulmate producer Jack Antonoff, bringing in only a handful of collaborators (the most notable is Lana Del Rey, who gives great femme energy on "Snow On The Beach"), burrowing into a sound that might be called ahistorical chillout music. Awash in synthesized elements that range from the vintage Moog and Juno 6 synths to laptop generated atmospherics and vocal manipulations, Midnights envelops Swift's story songs in a soft and mutable glow that sometimes recalls particular sources — the layered vocals and synth drums point toward Whitney Houston on "Lavender Haze," get Twin Peaks-y with "Maroon," lean more toward Billie Eilish on "Labyrinth" — but ultimately places the listener in the immediate nowhere of private space, a bedroom or a chat room, where, loosed from the outside world, stories can change in a whisper.

Swift has said that Midnights relays 13 specific after-hours agonies, most ostensibly from her own life, though a couple of tracks, like the highly theatrical "Vigilante S***," could be read as the kind of fiction that still strongly represents its author's experiences. Many of these songs are easy to Easter-egg as they take up the same threads that have dominated her writing since her pop breakthrough. "You're On Your Own, Kid" is a Nashville story, with its callow heroine playing industry parking-lot parties and quickly outpacing the mentor figure for whom she lusts and yearns. "Maroon" is from her wine-drinking New York days, probably referencing the same elusive free spirit who haunts her in Lover's "Cornelia Street." "Anti-Hero" has her behaving badly over tea, a nod to her current London home. The album includes two songs clearly dedicated to her partner Joe Alwyn (he cowrote one under his pseudonym, William Bowery), extolling his patience with her ever-changing moods and railing against outside forces who continually challenge their privacy. (The album's most political line: "The only kinda girl they see / is a one night or a wife.")

These stories won't surprise anyone, but their form may catch appreciators of Swift's conversational singing style off-guard. She's still sing-talking, doing that expert, subtle interpolations of hip-hop's cadences and country crooners' relaxed timbre. But often, she and Antonoff twist and push her gleaming vocals in new directions.

That's where the softening happens. For all of her kindness in the world and empathy and dedication to openness as a songwriter, Taylor Swift is, in her essence, sharp. Her vulnerability hides a blade. This quality resides in her voice, a weightless instrument that Swift has honed over time into Valyrian steel — glamorous, gleaming, but more deadly than it appears. Sharpness is also key to Swift's perspective, surfacing in her love of the telling detail, of the rejoinder that cuts through whatever bulls*** the object of her love/hate has burdened her with. It's a quality associated with gamine women, boyish in their agility and their cool refusal to be seduced. It is not lush; by some definitions, it's not feminine. It can be misunderstood as pettiness or even cruelty.

On Midnights Swift and Antonoff alter her voice in ways that fight against its cool glint, multitracking it until it glows, altering its pitch at times so that it's barely recognizable. On "Midnight Rain" it's auto-tuned to vacillate between birdlike high notes and an almost masculine lower register, punctuating the story the verses tell of a young woman outgrowing a relationship with a sound that evokes that process of unfolding into a new self. "Labyrinth" — as good as any song inspired by one of her favorite subjects, the experience of still hanging on when you have to let go — melts her voice into myriad light streams, some as twisted as in a Bon Iver song, others clearly hers. These synthetic renderings work against the high craft of Swift's meticulous songwriting, the neatness and control that makes her songs powerful but that can also diminish their emotional impact. Usually she's explaining every move she makes, but here the music pulls her into the eternal now of her emotions, working against her persistent impulse to make sense of them. Though they always return to the lucidity at Swift's core, these efforts recall the metamorphic effect of songs like SOPHIE's "Is It Cold in the Water?," opening up to modes of feeling that defeat neat storylines.

Those who treasure Swift's Dorothy Parker side, her wit and tartness, needn't worry. She's up to her old ways in songs like "Karma" (it's her boyfriend, the breeze in her hair on the weekend, a relaxing thought) and "Vigilante S***," a vampy number whose dropped beat recalls "killer" by FKA twigs. "Question...?" is the kind of story song only Swift can write, dipping into gel-pen poetry to cultivate a swoony mood, then focusing on a scene of romantic persuasion and betrayal drawn so acutely that it stings. "Did you ever have someone kiss you in a crowded room / And every single one of your friends was making fun of you / But 15 seconds later they were clapping too?" Swift sings, perfectly describing the way uncertain love can be solidified by social pressure, the way women in particular can be cornered by others' desires for them. Then, of course, the pushy paramour leaves in the middle of the night. This is the kind of truth-telling that's earned Swift the devotion of her fans. She still notices the little things that shatter a person.

The question this album poses is, who is that person? On its deepest level, Midnights is an interrogation of the first person, an attempt to find its origin point not in well-spun confessions but in the more confused and prescient utterances that come before any conclusions are drawn. That Antonoff and Swift explore this misty space through sound instead of more directly, through words, sometimes lends a half-finished quality to Swift and Antonoff's experiments. A certain kind of listener will wish that Midnights were weirder, more committed to its distortions. That listener might also draw a strange parallel to 808s & Heartbreak, the artistic breakthrough of Ye, her erstwhile antagonist (who then went by Kanye West). That was also a work about disordered emotions that relies on technology to express the kind of vulnerability that can't be contained in standard rhymes. In 2022, there's no doubt that Swift is the artist who's still growing, pushing herself to understand what it means to be a public figure who is also a person with faults and unresolved pain. She's still working to slacken the hold of the Old Taylor — of the many Old Taylors she's constructed through her music and celebrity. The multiform voice on Midnights suggests that the New Taylor is still emerging out of the haze.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.