These days on the internet, the term theory refers to something between a rumor and a prayer: a wish so commonly expressed that it starts to seem true. And a very particular wish fueled all the theorizing about Taylor Swift’s tenth original studio album, Midnights. Fans who speculated that she was about to come out as pansexual, or make a Rumours-level masterpiece of soft rock, or finally manage to quiet down Kanye West for good all wanted the same thing: a breakthrough. Maybe Taylor Swift would be different from who she has long seemed to be. Maybe this clever and corny 32-year-old woman from Pennsylvania who likes cats and cozy sweaters could still do something radical. Maybe—please, please, please—she could free us from our own banality.
But Midnights is not different. It is normal. Aggressively normal, aggravatingly normal, and, in its way, excellently normal. She has found the cultural status quo, and it sounds like that Glass Animals song that was in everyone’s TikToks last summer. What’s distinct about her return to synth pop is just the flavors she stirs in: oozing bass, surmountable melancholia, and the same type of confession and awkwardness that appears 45 minutes into an office happy hour. Transcending expectations is its own expectation, and Midnights makes clear, with modest poignance, that Swift has burned out on her own hype.
Listeners did have good reason to think she’d level up this time. Before the coronavirus pandemic, she released two sprawling pop albums—Reputation in 2017 and Lover in 2019—tinged with extremity and experimentation, brilliance and cringe. The isolation of 2020 resulted in the hush of Folklore and Evermore, whose songs were like spells incanted in uneasy chords and time signatures. Last year, she expanded an old ballad, “All Too Well,” into a 10-minute saga that flickered with controlled fury. These tinglings of high-art ambition might, logically, have culminated in Midnights, whose ’70s-rock marketing visuals call to mind Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks.
Instead, Swift and producer-writer Jack Antonoff chose to polish—not push forward—an idea that has intrigued her ever since the 2014 hit “Blank Space”: post-Lorde pop modernism, a catchy meld of diarism and drum machines. Fans will thus experience déjà vu at Midnights’ fast, “Ring Around the Rosie”–style cadences. They’ll easily anticipate the minimal-into-maximal journey many of its arrangements take. The choice of moodily distorted vocals feels especially dated; putting humanoid whale moans in an album’s first moments, as Swift and Antonoff have done, is like opening an IPAs-and-bacon bar in 2022. Yet compositionally, Midnights is sleek and sturdy in a way that no previous album of hers is. You might have trouble telling its songs apart from one another, but you don’t need to skip any of them.
The concept behind the album title—Swift documenting “13 sleepless nights” over her lifetime—is an excuse to tour through old obsessions: exes, haters, feuds, her beau’s talent for distracting her from all of the above. As usual, fresh coinages joust with groaners and clichés. (The lovely “Snow on the Beach,” for example, is almost ruined by a pointless Janet Jackson reference.) But the concision of Swift’s songcraft and the nuances of her phrasing should keep the listener tuned in. On one disco diss track, “Karma,” her silliness becomes a scansion lesson. (Please diagram this double negative: “Karma’s a relaxing thought / aren’t you envious that for you it’s not?”) For the opener, “Lavender Haze,” the cartoon-villain smolder of her voice has human creaks and squeaks.
The palpable weariness of a onetime teen prodigy now in her 30s both gives Midnights ballast and explains its regressive nature. Years into a settled relationship, comfy with acclaim and riches, Swift still knows that happy endings don’t exist. She lies awake, kvetching old kvetches and draining herself in the process. So it makes sense that her songs, bumping and bleary, sound like jock jams with chronic fatigue. “Maroon” and “Question…?,” two songs about hot memories, churn with a near-tragic blend of energy and frustration. On the delightfully trollish “Anti-Hero”—“Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby, and I’m a monster on the hill”—she makes the highly specific insecurities of a celebrity land as a normie gripe with pop culture.
That knack for relatability is her superpower—one so potent that it almost makes Midnights’ insularity seem noble. Amid the twee musings of “Sweet Nothing,” she sings, “The voices that implore, ‘You should be doing more’ / To you I can admit that I’m just too soft for all of it.” She might be referring to any number of realms—political, personal, musical—that Midnights leaves unexplored as it remaps familiar space. Being who you’ve always been, just with ever-greater confidence and competence, is, she seems to say, an achievement we should all aspire to. On the triumphant “You’re on Your Own, Kid,” Swift thinks back to the moment in her life when she realized her “dreams aren’t rare.” That realization is, of course, why she’s so widely loved.