(Photo courtesy of Billboard) Taylor Swift breaks new sound barriers on her latest effort.
Among contemporary pop stars, very few have switched styles as seamlessly, effectively and consistently as Taylor Swift. Starting in country, transitioning to pop, and then, more recently, to alternative, she has shown a penance for constant musical growth and artistic evolution. As such, it is disappointing to see her latest album, “Midnights”, fail to follow suit.
“Midnights” is by no means a bad album. Like most pop Swift albums, there are bad songs, but the overall product is still solid. In fact, its overall consistency will place it among certain fans’ favorite pop albums of hers. However, after a stellar turn to alternative music, her returning to a more standard synthpop style feels underwhelming.
Despite it having her biggest successes commercially, pop has never been a particularly strong genre for Swift. She has stellar songs in the genre, but her preceding pop albums have been incredibly inconsistent. Her country and alternative turns have allowed her to portray more of her storytelling in her songwriting, as is her best talent as a writer and musician.
While “Midnights” carries some of the melodic and songwriting strengths over from alternative turn “Folklore” and “Evermore”, it also carries some of her struggles in specifically pop songwriting. She can write a catchy hook, but it often comes at the expense of strong lyricism. Album cut “Karma” is the worst offender of such, with the chorus having lyrics such as “karma is a cat, purring in my lap” and “me and karma vibe like that.”
Apart from “Karma” and a few other clunky moments, lyricism is not the main issue with the album. Songs such as the lead single “Anti-Hero” and track 5, notorious for being fan favorites on Swift albums, “You’re on Your Own, Kid” show her usual songwriting strengths at their peak in creating relatable narratives. “Anti-Hero” is one of the strongest moments on the album, featuring an engaging dissection of her insecurities and mental health struggles within the format of a standard pop song.
The biggest problem in “Midnights” comes down to its production. Every song is well-produced, but they are too familiar for Swift songs at this point. Her frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff produced nearly every song on the album. Antonoff has become a prolific and acclaimed producer ever since first working on her “1989”, but she has leaned on him too frequently since then. It does not help that his work with other artists sounds similar to his work with Swift, resulting in a similar soundscape for many recent alternative-leaning female pop albums.
However, much of these issues are smoothed over in the “3am Edition” that was released 3 hours after the standard album. Here, Swift brings back “Folklore” and “Evermore” collaborator Aaron Dessner, who produces and co-writes on the best songs on the album. Second-to-last track “Would’ve Could’ve Should’ve” may be Swift’s finest pop song to date, while other standout “High Infidelity” feels reminiscent of her prior two albums.
These added tracks are also unafraid to tread new ground for Swift. “Glitch” sounds unlike any Swift song before, with the production of both the instrumental and her vocals sounding glitched-out. “Bigger Than The Whole Sky” sounds uniquely dark for her, and “The Great War” sees her taking a unique songwriting approach through an extended metaphor for her relationship using World War I.
Frankly, it is puzzling why many of these songs did not make the original album in the first place. These songs are also currently unavailable on any physical edition of the album, a disappointment for those who wish to hear them in their full glory on a record player. Their addition is beyond welcoming to see and dramatically improve the album, but their relative under-availability is a shame. Additionally, they create a new issue that the standard edition did not face.
The standard “Midnights” album was only 13 songs. Even at the occasional moment it lagged, the end is never far away. However, the full “3am Edition” comes in at 20 songs and just over an hour. With several songs blending together due to production similarities, the album carries a sense of bloat that it did not before.
An ideal version of “Midnights” would split the difference between the standard and deluxe versions, cutting out some of the middle section of the standard album for a leaner track list, making room for the stellar deluxe tracks. This approach, and perhaps a release earlier into Swift’s career, would see “Midnights” potentially stand as one of the highlights of Swift’s career. However, a mix of a lack of artistic development from the stunning “Folklore” and “Evermore” and a bit too much filler results in “Midnights” being a slightly underwhelming, though enjoyable endeavor.