Taylor Swift’s stunning new album, “Midnightsends with a song in which the pop superstar patiently explains to someone – possibly several million people – that their intimate relationship was not a product of kismet but of design.
“I laid the groundwork,” she sings over a blippy electronic groove, her voice slightly ahead of the beat, “then, like clockwork, the dominoes cascaded into one another.” The tune is called “Mastermind”, which is what Swift calls herself in the chorus, perfectly rhyming the word with “now you’re mine”. And many of its characteristic details may make you think that it describes a romance. But ‘Mastermind’ is also about Swift’s unique career – the deliberation and ingenuity of moves that took the 32-year-old from teenage country phenom to top two or three biggest acts. in all music.
“Nobody wanted to play with me when I was little,” she sings toward the end of “Mastermind,” which might be the saddest and funniest line on an LP crammed with both genres, “so I’ve been scheming like a criminal ever since to get them to like me and make it sound effortless.(Take a second to savor the intricate rhythm of these words before you’ve even heard them set to music.)
Questioning the delights and anxieties of her own stardom has been a hallmark of Swift’s work for years — or at least until 2020, when she cast aside much of a pop’s autobiographical life. star for the so-called fictional character-driven stories of her twin pandemic albums, “Folklore” and “Still.” Filled with songs about small-town crooks, awkward high schoolers and hapless married people — even a murderer — these projects also radically overhauled her sound, moving away from the synthesized productions that sent her into the Hot 100 toward a rootsy , a mainly acoustic atmosphere that she formulated with Aaron Dessner of the indie-rock group The National.
Swift suggested the pandemic isolation freed her imagination; certainly, the smaller scale of music reflected the demands of remote collaboration. Yet “Midnights,” her 10th studio feature, reverts to an earlier Swift mode in sonic and lyrical terms: This 13-track set, which she produced with longtime creative partner Jack Antonoff, feels that it picks up exactly where 2014’s “1989” and 2017’s “Reputation” left off, with slick, heavy arrangements that seem vaguely aware of hip-hop’s existence and with lyrics peppered with juicy allusions to the various Swift’s feuds and loves. (“Lover,” from 2019, plays even more now than it did then as a transitional effort between phases of Swift’s career.)
It’s easy in a sense to see why she’s taken this approach, given that she’s spent 2021 re-recording her “Fearless” and “Red” albums as part of a plan to create new versions of the LPs whose she lost partial control when her former record label changed hands. As meticulous as pop has ever known, Swift has clearly reflected — more than usual — on her journey and her youth; “Nothing newone of several freshly taped takes she included in “Red (Taylor’s Version),” captures a woman in her 30s confronting her suspicions in her 20s about how her industry would then treat her. that she would grow old out of ingenue.
“Midnights” opens with the raunchy, R&B-adjacent”lavender mistin which Swift laments the scrutiny she faces as a famous person dating another famous person (in her case, English actor Joe Alwyn); the song — co-written by and with background vocals from actress Zoë Kravitz — seeks a safe space away from a realm where her cowardly talk threatens to “go viral,” as she puts it. In “Anti-Hero,” over Antonoff’s buzzing synths and booming 80s rock drums, she weighs the public’s harshest opinions of her, adjusting to a “hidden narcissism” and admitting that sometimes feels like “a monster on the hill…slowly towards your favorite city.
The shimmering, vicious ‘Karma’ apparently takes aim at powerful music executive Scooter Braun, who engineered the label purchase that spawned Swift’s re-recording venture: ‘Spiderboy, King of Thieves / Weave your little webs of opacity,” she sings—consider the remarkable “S” and “B” in “Spiderboy”—before describing what she sees as her cosmic advantage with a series of vivid metaphors: “Karma is my boyfriend / Karma is a god / Karma is the breeze in my hair on the weekends.” The breeze in his hair on the weekends! Good night, Spiderboy.
Swift’s impulse for storytelling didn’t die on “Midnights,” which she says was born out of her penchant for wee-hour contemplation. “Midnight Rain,” a slow, giddy number with offbeat vocals, tells the story of a guy and a girl with different life goals, neither of which appear to be Swift or Alwyn; ditto “Maroon,” in which guy and girl get drunk on her roommate’s “cheap screw-on rosé.” Then there’s Billie Eilish’s luscious “Vigilante S—” about a woman who helps a betrayed wife get revenge on her filthy husband.
Yet the writing and vocal performance here is so strong – she plays with cadence and emphasizes the grain of her voice like never before – that eventually you stop caring about what’s straight from real life. of Swift and what is not. It’s just a joy to get lost in tracks like ‘Labyrinth’, in which the singer explores her fear of falling in love again, and ‘Snow on the Beach’, a beautiful duet with Lana Del Rey with some of the most touching imagery. from the album. “My smile is like I won a contest,” Swift sings of a surprising new adventure, and that’s all you need to conjure up the precise image in your head.
She paints another indelible image in ‘Mastermind,’ referring to herself as ‘the wind in our flowing sails’ right after she explains a bit about why she’s been so thorough in her interactions with her boyfriend (or her audience) . “All the wisest women had to do it this way because we were born to be the pawn in every lover’s game,” she sings. Then she takes a breath and adds, “If you don’t plan, you plan to fail.” Only Swift could make a self-help slogan sound like a fairy tale.