Midnight swear-along with Taylor Swift

A surprising new album from America’s sweetheart

Let us cast our minds back to that first pandemic summer: the fevered weather, the grounded days, the fear, loss and bewilderment; the blossom photos that filled our social media feeds. In the midst of it all, Taylor Swift released an album, Folklore, whose folk-tinged songs captured the global mood – locked down, slowed-down, introspective, with a new reverence for the natural world.

A few months later came its companion record, Evermore, which deepened the scene – its texture softer and more muted, filled with musical echoes, low-running percussion, an absence of dynamics. These were songs of strangeness and distance, of hunkered days all running into one.

Folklore and Evermore made a surprising move for an artist known for her ability to craft pop juggernauts, but somehow Swift distilled the sound of the pandemic itself. These two records also repositioned the singer as a very different kind of songwriter – while there were contributions from uber producer Jack Antonoff, much of the record was steered by Aaron Dessner of The National, who brought in a host of collaborators from the alternative music world, among them his bandmates Matt Berninger and Bryce Dessner, and close friends Josh Kaufman, CJ Camerieri, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. In this new light, Swift now stood not as pristine pop princess, but as a musician’s musician.

This autumn, she returned with a new record, Midnights, which she billed as “a collection of music written in the middle of the night, a journey through terrors and sweet dreams.” Accordingly, there are small-hours ruminations on regret, revenge, new love and past relationships, there are contemplations of fame, career, depression.

This is Swift’s tenth album, and as is now customary with any new offering, its songs were duly pored over, analysed, and turned into memes before the music was even dry on the charts. In the hours that followed its release, a cursory glance across the internet revealed listeners’ main concern to be an absence of songs to dance to. There was no Shake It Off, no Blank Space, no Bad Blood. The choruses did not aim for the jugular; the verses were not sung in Technicolor.

It was a surprising decision for those who expected Swift to spring us from covid confinement and speed off in her maximalist pop convertible. Couldn’t she have taken the note from Beyoncé, whose most recent release, Renaissance, drew so gloriously on black and queer dance culture? Isn’t now the time for big floor-fillers? Isn’t this the singalong moment?

Swift is a compelling musical figure, and across the near twenty years of her career, each musical move has been carefully considered and impeccably crafted. She has been sweet country heroine, gleeful pop pin-up, flannel-folk queen, she has offered withering lyrical takedowns of famous ex-boyfriends and sour pop rivals, given us soap opera as much as song. Along the way, every note, every line, every key change has been weighed and measured twice. So if Taylor isn’t giving us big, danceable pop, one has to wonder why.

As much as we might will it to, the world has not returned to pre-pandemic gaiety. There is an uncertainty as life resumes, a new seriousness to the age that’s intensified not only by the losses wrought by covid, but by war, the gathering climate emergency, recession, the revelations of the Black Lives Matter movement.

What Taylor does on Midnights is capture this mood of recalibration and reflection. These are songs that consider all the moments of our lives that led us to where we now stand, the choices and diverging paths, the rising sense that it is not too late to change again. It’s the mood that triggered the Great Resignation, a thousand moves to the country, the sudden spike in divorce rates.

And while Midnights’ songs may not deliver pop hooks, they are not without sonic delight. Across these thirteen tracks (and more on the record’s extended version) there’s a sultriness summoned by vintage synths, vocal effects, space and breath and, surprisingly, swearing. Swift swears deliciously, copiously, with the liberalness of the good girl wanting to show us she’s grown. And while it’s not quite the same as the time Kylie abandoned her Stock Aitken and Waterman roots and turned sexy, hearing Swift f-bomb her way through these tracks, title its slinkiest number Vigilante Shit, and throw in an unexpected “dickhead” for good measure, still has a lick of the Sandra Dee makeover.

One might speculate that the singer’s long-running relationship with British actor Joe Alwyn has been a contributing factor here – even as the country stumbles into a gutter, Moody’s downgrade our credit rating, and the NHS is forced to operate out of a single leaky-roofed portacabin in Solihull, Britain will always be the very best nation at swearing.

But I suspect there is something else afoot in Swift’s passion for expletives. Few words have their sonic force, few words are so irresistible, or feel so delightful on the tongue. There is a consonental magnetism to “fuck”, an anarchic thrill to “shit”, a great sonic two fingers to it all. What Swift has done so magnificently here on Midnights is to distil the essence of a perfect pop chorus into a single word. Maybe we can’t dance to it, but we can certainly swear along with gusto.

Laura Barton is a writer and broadcaster. Her book, “Sad Songs”, is out next year

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