If an artist commands a religious fervour in her fans, then it is also possible to approach the work as an agnostic. If those kneeling in the pews become so easily raised in impassioned devotion, what does it mean to observe, quiet and conscientious, in that same space?
Taylor Swift is no deity, but her most ardent fans treat her as such all the same – an idol worshipped from concrete floors to the nosebleeds. So it is unsurprising that Midnights, Swift’s latest release, arrives on the heels of a cavalcade of myths and fables. Mysteries like the existence of an album lost to time, a rumour that ponders a perceived queer subtext buried in her words and the persistent notion that Track 11, Karma, is a song about Kanye West (who now goes by Ye). Fans have eagerly grasped at the minutiae of every small detail parsed out over places like Spotify and TikTok, where Swift has taken to framing elaborately sparse sets built of simple backdrops and mid-century modern décor.
With a sly smile and perfect poise, she says that she’s aware of her cryptic nature, the secretive manner in which she doles out information. In the first of the videos revealing the track titles from Midnights, she pulls a 13 – because of course, it is her lucky number – then pulls a red telephone from off screen and says the title, “Mastermind.”
Midnights is an album that is built on the intensity of world building, stories and the what-ifs leading up to it. With that same sly smile, Swift delivers what she knows will keep her fan base eagerly picking at the bones for further meat. But the album also relies on foreknowledge of the deep lore to solidify the narrative.
The 13 tracks on Midnights are of course impeccably produced pop songs. They shine and delight in all of the right corners of the world she has built around herself, where the clues and secrets and references all have dominion over the land. If you are an avid fan, there is no doubt a garden of endless delights for you here. On Karma, headlines of her feud with Ye flash in the mind’s eye as Swift says “I keep my side of the street clean, you wouldn’t know what I mean,” Lavender Haze a title that Gaylors – the Swift fans obsessed with notions of her secret queerness – are certain is an unspoken acknowledgment.
But approaching the album as an outsider is a daunting task. At first listen, it feels as if something is missing, that all the dust in the world kicked into the air is just a distraction to take away from a pop record that sounds like any other Jack Antonoff-produced pop record, those by Florence and the Machine, Lorde or Lana Del Ray. The lyrics are just obtuse enough to be confusing, and generic enough to feel like a blade dulled by time. But in time, and with the right secrets, the truth reveals itself.
It becomes apparent that there must be an unseen depth, but that it requires work on the part of the listener. The songs don’t immediately sink into you, asking first that you open yourself to the possibility of more before they’ll begin to haunt you.
Swift has noted that the themes present here are of self-hatred, revenge and the falling into and out of love. The songs are born of nights spent lying awake exploring the worst recesses of the self that sleepless midnights tend to reveal, a fact Swift revealed in her careful unveiling of the album. But again, this requires the listener to have steeped themselves in Swift lore so thoroughly that you know which winks and nods to be mindful of.
It is true that Midnights has abandoned the contemplative down tempo of previous albums folklore and evermore. Despite the beat being sped to a more movement-inspired rhythm, the songs remain rooted in the humanity of isolation – the isolation of the self, the parts of our mind that we turn to in the worst minutes of sleepless nights and wonder whether all of this has fallen to ruin.
Tracks like Anti-Hero, where Swift ponders aloud to no one in particular, “Did you hear my covert narcissism?” and “Hi, I’m the problem, it’s me” with the defenceless sincerity of someone lost to their worst impulses in the middle of the night.
The sombre and reflective You’re On Your Own, Kid is the pain of the lost connectivity to a lover who has pulled away, the kind of longing into your phone one falls into in the dead of night. Question…? tells of the spiral of persistent questions swirling around the what-if of a relationship left unfulfilled: “what’s that that I heard, that you’re still with her, that’s nice I’m sure, that’s what’s suitable and right.”
Later, on Vigilante Shit, that same impulse is driven by the sultry allure of revenge – “draw the cat eye sharp enough to kill a man” before stating simply “I don’t dress for women, I don’t dress for men, lately I’ve been dressing for revenge.” You can practically hear the blade sharpen behind the slow pulse of a drum machine.
Midnights is a return to an all-too-familiar pop canvas, but the paint is still tinted in darker shades. It is an album that requires listeners to bring their own gathered knowledge to the table, keystones and ciphers to unravel the mysteries of what is otherwise a perfectly manicured pop record. And while agnostics and non-believers may struggle to find a deeper meaning, the gathered worshippers will be richly rewarded.