Dropping the Kanye/Travis-infused basslines of the first 13 songs of Midnights, Taylor Swift pivots to her signature songwriting of catchy choruses and lyrical verses with moderate instrumentation and light production on ‘The Great War’. The production and lyrical foci of the first half of the album are melded into a musical medley in this last part, drawing on the artistic transcendence of folklore, which until Midnights was Taylor Swift’s highest Metacritic-rated album, competing with the likes of Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Bob Dylan, and Fiona Apple in the 90+ average critic ratings. This is more like it. Is it?
The next track ‘Bigger Than The Whole Sky’ gently reintroduces the synth production sounds of the early album, though still dwelling around the mid range, wary of returning to the bass. ‘Could’ve been, would’ve been you’ is the rhythmical catchline of the chorus, while the prosaic verse contemplates how ‘Every single thing to come has turned into ashes’. Traditionally insensitive lyrics like ‘I’ve got a lot to live without’ contrast with the traditionally perceptive mourning of the near-death experience of loss.
‘Paris’ brings back the beat. It is good, echoing the 1989 commercial peak of Swift while also leaning into the emotional purgatory/paradise of later albums. It is a little sad that reputation finds its only echo in a revenge song (the Drake-esque ‘Vigilante Shit’), when the production on this album still clearly owes a lot to Mr. West. Remember that folklore was built on a Justin Vernon collaboration that echoed Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Indeed, Midnights strikes me as akin to Kanye’s The Life of Pablo in more ways than one. As always, I would like to point out the difference between the critical self-awareness of the latter and the almost deafening silence of the former on the real world and the material contradictions of late capitalism. Kanye’s astute commentary on poverty in his early career and luxury in his late career contrast with Swift’s almost complete avoidance of real engagement with the real world. You’d have to go back to ‘Mine’ from Speak Now. ‘Glitch’ is almost unbearably concerned with romance for its own sake. It is empty. Hip hop makes emptiness known in order to critique it. Swift’s pop tends to suppress emptiness and avoid critique of it. In that sense, it is what ‘k-punk’ Marxist-Hegelian writer Mark Fisher called ‘capitalist realism’.
But then we turn to the penultimate song of the extended Midnights edition. ‘Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve Been’ meditates on how the ‘tomb won’t close’. Romantic loss is equated to a form of death of the self. In losing the other, you lose yourself. Drake has made this argument a thousand times since Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak. It is getting a little tired. But it is still true.
There is something in common between Jacob Collier, Drake and Taylor Swift. Each have remarkable talents — Collier’s being musical, Drake’s being artistic, and Swift’s being at once musical and lyrical. But the lyrics are overtaking the music and the artistry is leaving the scene. We are left with Taylor Swift, the poet. And that is not Swift’s skill. I’m not sure if Midnights really is the best use of Ms. Swift’s talents, however much it synthesises her older work. If there’s one word I would use to describe this record, it is this: empty.
‘Dear Reader’ is a partial exception to this rule, encouraging the listener to embark on a West-esque ‘Runaway’. Echoing the self-critical ‘Savior’ on Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers, Swift calls on us to ‘find another guiding light’. I think we should. ‘Anti-Hero’ is one thing. But don’t we deserve a hero? I think we do.
Alternatively, we can stay in that ‘Lavender Haze’. The beat is good. And the bars are smart. Is this art? Time will tell. Right now, I can’t tell. Updates on the way. More music on the way …
Oh and by the way, ‘Karma’ is a lot of fun. It wasn’t quite the punk album we Swifties expected. But it is the song we needed. Onwards.
Or perhaps Swift is just tired. This is her tenth album. Her skills are higher than ever. But applying them is harder. She may be tired — but she may still be right. I’m not sure anymore. What’s that shadow at the —
Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?