Out of the Woods, Taylor Swift’s Midnights Heralds the Return of the Pop Mastermind

Taylor Swift’s new album, “Midnights,” concludes with a song in which the pop star patiently explains to someone – perhaps millions of people – that their intimate relationship was not the product of a kismet but a design.

“I lay the foundation,” she sings on a faint electronic groove, her voice slightly ahead of the beat, “and then just like clockwork, the dominoes roll in a line.” The melody is called “Mastermind,” which is what Swift calls herself in the chorus, and sings the word precisely with “Now you’re mine.” And so many of its distinctive details would make you think that it was describing a love story. But “Mastermind” is also about Swift’s unique career — about the deliberation and ingenuity of moves that made the 32-year-old from a rural teen phenomenon into one of the biggest of two or three acts. In all the music.

“No one wanted to play with me when I was a little girl,” she sings near the end of “Mastermind,” which may be the saddest and funniest line on an LP teeming with both genres, “so I’ve been planning like a criminal ever since to get them to like me and make it seem effortless. “. (Take a second to savor the complex rhythm of these words before you hear them until you hear the music.)

Meditation on the masterpieces and anxieties of her famous character has been a hallmark of Swift’s work for years — or at least until 2020, when she set aside much of her pop star biography for the sake of apparent fiction. Character-driven novels for her epidemiological twin albums, “Folklore” and “Forever”. Filled with songs about small-towners, awkward high school kids, and unhappy married people — even a killer — these projects also radically rework their sound, moving away from the synthesized production that sent them to the Hot 100 toward the roots, mostly vocal ambiance they forged with indie rock band Aaron Desner. The National.

Swift suggested that isolating the pandemic freed her imagination. Certainly, the music’s smaller scale reflects the requirements for remote collaboration. However, “Midnights,” her tenth studio full-length, reverts to Swift’s previous status both vocally and lyrically: This 13-track set, which she produced with her longtime creative partner Jack Antonoff, feels like picking up where my 2014 movie left off.” 1989” and 2017’s “Reputation,” with cool, rhythmic arrangements that seem well aware of the presence of hip-hop and with lyrics peppered with tantalizing allusions to Swift’s diverse high-profile feuds and love affairs. (“Lover” from 2019, plays more now than it did at the time as a transitional effort between the stages of Swift’s career.)

It’s fairly easy to understand why she took this approach, given that she spent 2021 re-recording her albums “Fearless” and “Red” as part of a plan to create new releases of LPs that partially lost control of when her old record label changed hands. As accurately as the diarist knew, it is clear that Swift was thinking—thinking more than usual—of her journey and of her younger self; “Nothing New,” one of many newly recorded shots she included in “Red (Taylor’s version)”, depicts a woman in her thirties confronting her 20-something doubts about how her chosen industry will treat her as she ages. .

“Midnights” opens with the R&B fringe “Lavender Haze,” in which Swift laments the scrutiny she’s under as a celebrity dating another famous person (in her case, English actor Joe Alwyn); The song — co-written by actress Zoe Kravitz and featuring background vocals — searches for a safe space away from a world where her loose talk threatens to “go viral,” as she puts it. In “Anti-Hero,” amid the blaring Antonov hums and booming rock drums of the ’80s, she weighs the audience’s harsh opinions of her, deals with her “hidden narcissism” and admits that she sometimes feels like “a monster on a hill… slowly heading toward your city.” Favorite “.

The vocal performances on “Midnights” are among Swift’s career strongest – she plays with rhythm and emphasizes the iota of her voice like never before.

(Pete Garbrandt)

The sinister, shimmering “Karma” appears to be aimed at powerful music executive Scooter Braun, who designed the label purchase that produced Swift’s re-recording company: “Spiderboy, king of thieves/Weave your little webs out of opacity,” sings—you notice a distinctly “S” and “” B” in “Spiderboy” — before describing what she considers her cosmic advantage with a series of vivid metaphors: “Karma is my friend / Karma is my god / Karma is the breeze in my hair on the weekends.” The breeze is in her hair on the weekends! Good night, Spiderboy.

Swift’s storytelling impulse wasn’t dead in “midnight,” which she said grew out of her determination to meditate in the early hours. “Midnight Rain,” a surprisingly slow number with pitch-changing vocals, tells the story of a man and girl with different life goals, neither of which seems to be Swift or Alwyn; Ditto, ‘Maroon’, where the guy and girl get drunk from their roommate’s ‘cheap screw-ass rose’. Then there’s Billie Eilish’s Vigilante S story about a woman who helps an unfaithful wife get revenge on her dirty husband.

A woman reclining on a sofa in a wood-panelled room

As much as a meticulous diarist has known her as pop music has known her, it’s clear that Swift has been thinking about her journey and her younger self.

(Pete Garbrandt)

However, the songwriting and vocal performances here are so strong – she plays with rhythm and emphasizes the iota of her voice like never before – that she eventually stops caring about what is drawn directly from Swift’s real life and what isn’t. It’s a pleasure to get lost in tunes like “Labyrinth,” where the singer explores her fear of falling in love again, and “Snow on the Beach,” a gorgeous duet with Lana Del Rey with some of the album’s most touching images: “My smile feels like I I won a contest,” Swift sings in regards to the sudden new fling, and that’s all you need to conjure up the exact image in your head.

She paints another indelible picture in The Mastermind, referring to herself as “the wind in our free-flowing sails” after offering a bit of context that explains why she was so elaborate in her interactions with her boyfriend (or audience). She sings “All the wisest women had to do it this way ’cause we were born to be a pawn in every lover’s game.” Then she takes a breath and adds, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Only Swift can make the self-help mantra seem Like a fairy tale.

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