Final Grade: 5.8/10
Ahlgrim: Taylor Swift is a genius, but not everything she does is genius.
Much like “Reputation,” its closest relative in Swift’s discography, “Midnights” is a collection of highs and lows. I can easily sort its tracklist into songs I love, songs I like just fine, and songs I loathe.
But unlike “Reputation,” the highs on “Midnights” are not stratospheric, and the lows did not make me physically recoil. Each end of the spectrum is far less intense. “Sweet Nothing,” my favorite song on the standard-edition album, does not hold a candle to “Delicate.” “Bejeweled,” my least favorite song, doesn’t send a cold shiver down my spine like “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.”
This disparity is due to the lack of texture and tension on “Midnights.” To paraphrase a voicenote Courteney sent me, Swift and Antonoff put very little work into the architecture of this album; it’s a mostly flat plane.
To those who have compared the album’s quality to “1989” and “Lover,” I ask, where are the passionate bridges à la “Out of the Woods” and “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” the structural artform that Swift is best known for? To those who would argue that you need to sacrifice moments of release, shock, and awe in order to achieve cohesion, I ask, have you ever listened to “Folklore” and “Evermore,” her most fascinating and most cohesive albums to date?
Lackluster production is forgivable, of course, as long as Swift’s legendary songwriting is on full display. To be sure, there are glimmers of her lyrical prowess: she slips in words like “Machiavellian” and “aurora borealis” with astonishing ease; references Greek mythology in one breath and Janet Jackson’s “All For You” in another; describes a once-promising romance as “carnations you had thought were roses” and estrangement as “the rust that grew between telephones.”
But Swift undermines those feats with long stretches of repetition and entire songs of regressive, unimaginative pop-speak.
Although “Midnights” was marketed as an intimate and keen-eyed deep-dive into Swift’s neuroses and regrets, her “demons” and “self-made cages,” the reality is a set of broad strokes that feel vaguely familiar — like the hazy scenes of a dream you can’t quite remember in the morning. Many critics will call these lyrics “cryptic” when they’re really just non-specific. There are no scarves to be found.
Although I feel more positive about “Midnights” as a whole than my esteemed editor and fellow lifelong Swiftie — and I will bop to “Anti-Hero” and “Karma” without a shred of guilt — I cannot deny that my immediate reaction when the album ended was disappointment.
Perhaps my expectations were too high and I’m the problem (it’s me).
Larocca: While working on this review, a friend pinged me to ask, “Are you in Taylor bliss?” Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to answer that question with anything other than “always.”
Listen, it brings me no pleasure to report that “Midnights” is an average pop album at best. I’m anticipating accusations of, “Well, it wasn’t going to be ‘Folklore!’ You just hate pop music!” To which I’d say, I am not upset by a return to pop. Ultimately, Swift can successfully slap any production she damn well pleases onto a song. It often works because she typically builds off a foundation of sturdy lyricism.
Take “Reputation,” her most critically panned pop album, for example. I know several people who have said they didn’t like “Dancing With Our Hands Tied” until they heard the acoustic version. Same with “King of My Heart.” Callie even sent me a stripped-down version of “Me!” recently, although that one didn’t change my mind that the lead single from “Lover” is unlistenable.
But if I were to dive into a lyric booklit for “Midnights,” the logical conclusion I’d make is that Swift, like every writer, could use an editor. And Antonoff is certainly not up to the task.
Now, it’s not Antonoff’s fault either that the album is mid. This is a man who helped make undeniable hits like “Getaway Car” and “August.” But it’s clear that his best work comes when the people he’s working with have a clear vision and rein him in. This is the first album in which Swift and Antonoff were the only two main collaborators. They can make magic together, but there’s no one keeping either of them in check when Swift wants to write about sharp eyeliner or sexy babies.
But that magic I just mentioned only comes in glimmers. Her highest highs on “Midnights” (“Lavender Haze,” “Maroon,” “Sweet Nothing”) don’t reach the same peak of most of her other albums. These are the type of songs that would feel second-rate if put alongside the likes of their older sisters, “Cruel Summer,” “Don’t Blame Me,” and “Peace.”
It’s not like Swift forgot how to write. She actually wrote a lot of great songs, and chose to leave them off of what my friends and I have begun calling “Midnights” Proper.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a well-constructed bridge within the city limits Swift set, but if you can find your way to “Midnights” Suburbia (or, as Swift is officially calling it, “The 3am Edition”), you’ll be delighted to encounter tracks like “Glitch,” “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve,” “High Infidelity,” and “The Great War.” Take exit 13, and you’ll run into “Hits Different” at Target, she looks a lot like Shania Twain or Faith Hill in the late 90s.
When left to her own devices, Swift often misses the mark when selecting a lead single. “Midnights” didn’t have one, which apparently translated to choosing the weakest set of 13 tracks and relegating her biggest hitters to land outside the boundaries of album reviews and vinyl sales.
The good news is that if you’re also disappointed by the album, another rerecording is not far off. Swift has been churning out music at such an unprecedented rate, another sampling of her songwriting is never too far away. “Midnights” would’ve been devastating had it come after three years of nothing, but instead, it’s a just-OK addition to her ever growing collection. It won’t be long now until Swift pops up again saying, “Hi! It’s me!”
Worth listening to:
“You’re on Your Own, Kid”
“Snow on the Beach” (featuring Lana Del Rey)
*Final album score based on songs per category (1 point for “Worth listening to,” .5 for “Background music,” .5 for “Split decision,” 0 for “Press skip”).