All Taylor Swift thinks about is karma.
As she conceded on Reputation lead single “Look What You Made Me Do,” karma is on her mind 24/7. But for Swift, karma isn’t just how human behavior affects the cosmic order of things. It’s the idea that people’s actions control the narrative. Because Swift has been in the spotlight since she was 16, the story of her career has so often been told for her, and any time she can reclaim that narrative, she does so with gusto. When Scooter Braun bought Big Machine Records and the masters to Swift’s first six records along with it, Swift set out to re-record the albums so she could own her own work. When it comes to the drama first stirred up by Kanye West’s crashing Swift’s speech at the 2009 VMAs, she has opted time and time again for the higher road, dissing West with intention in her songs rather than outright. And when she was scorned for being seemingly apolitical as democracy increasingly fell under siege, she in 2019 released a documentary, Miss Americana, pointing to the roadblocks she faced when trying to speak up—and has become an outspoken voting rights advocate in the years since.
Swift is never not thinking about the big picture, and she returns to the business of image-making on her cryptic and catchy 10th album, Midnights. Where Reputation was an entire record devoted to image and even revenge on those who had defaced her, Swift speaks a more subtle language on Midnights. While it was pitched as something of a concept album—“the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life”—it probably could have been framed like any of her other releases. But Swift knows her all-too-attentive fans (and haters) will assign the album an aesthetic anyways, so why not control the narrative herself? So she shaped these 13 (!) songs into an on-brand all-nighter. That’s what Midnights is. It’s Swift waving the wand.
It’s not news that Swift is particularly fascinated with the bewitching hour. The 2 a.m. timestamp comes up in her music all the time, and as Midnights is perhaps her most self-aware work to date (with some of her best writing to boot), it makes sense that she is just leaning into the whole idea that daytime outcomes hinge on nighttime circumstance. While folklore partner Aaron Dessner is notably absent from Midnights, Swift again joins forces with Jack Antonoff and the pair play to this theme whenever possible, all while expounding on the synth-pop groundwork laid by 1989 in 2014, and further teased out on Lover and Reputation. [Editor’s note: Swift released seven new songs just hours after this review was published, including three featuring Dessner, as part of the “3am Edition” of Midnight.]
“Slick” is not always a word associated with the biggest pop stars in the world, but that’s what Swift is on Midnights. There is actually a song on the album named “Karma,” a track whose existence Swifties have long insisted upon, that features what’s sure to go down as an iconic couplet in Swift’s catalog: “Karma is a cat / Purring in my lap ‘cause it loves me.” She chimes in later on “Vigilante Shit,” “I don’t start shit but I can tell you how it ends,” and applies a “cat eye sharp enough to kill a man.”
Midnights is like if your sleep paralysis demon took up with your therapist and went to a club. “When my depression works the graveyard shift / All of the people I’ve ghosted stand there in the room,” Swift sings on the techno-y “Anti-Hero.” She goes on to target both insomnia and karma (again) on the track, where she swims around in her own nightmares as “midnights become my afternoons” and blasts her enemies as having too much time on their hands (“It must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero”). It’s one of the most immediate songs on the tracklist, if we can only forgive her for the puzzling line, “Sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby / And I’m a monster on the hill.”
There isn’t necessarily a Midnights track that screams single, and that’s surely not by accident. Swift, as she is wont to do at this point in her mega-successful career, wrote this album free from the pressure to craft a bombastic single and pitch it to the masses. This isn’t the pop of “Shake It Off” or “ME!”—it’s pop music without the steep inclines, something much more muted, nuanced, calculated, cunning and pulsing. Sometimes making a great pop song isn’t about bells and whistles—it’s about restraint. “Question..?” fits this description, with its steady stream of blips and Swift’s allusion to a lover who “painted all my nights / a color I have searched for since.” “Bejeweled,” too, is boppy but not pompous. As shimmery as its title would suggest, the song finds Swift revisiting the idea of feeling forced to shine for someone—or everyone (see “All Too Well 10-Minute Version” and “mirrorball”)—complete with touches of LCD Soundsystem-esque electronica and the pitter-patter of Antonoff’s handiwork on the Juno 6 and wurlitzer synths. It’s not a flat canvas splattered with paint—it’s a helix, glinting as the light hits it.
Midnights moves fairly effortlessly between the discotheque and a moonlit boulevard. “Snow On The Beach,” which is as dreamy as you’d hope a Lana Del Rey/Taylor Swift team-up might be, occupies the latter space, as does the album’s penultimate track, “Sweet Nothing,” which revels in the mundane parts of love and ruminates on a pebble plucked from the Irish shore. “Labyrinth,” too, throbs with synths but softens as Swift’s soprano sings, “I’ll be getting over you my whole life.” The album is largely modern, but also weaves multiple eras of pop expression into its tidy 45 minutes, the most interesting of which veers into indietronica territory. “Midnight Rain” follows this path, stirring STRFKR-esque beats into a healthy helping of vocal modulators and sickly sweet synths that would make Matty Healy blush.
Swift’s past selves pop up here and there throughout Midnights, and this album’s ties to Reputation, in particular, are hard to ignore. “Maroon” is this album’s “Dress,” complete with some light rapping entrenched in hypnotic trap beats and a not-so-subtle reference to a hickey. Opener “Lavender Haze”—a co-write with Antonoff, Kendrick Lamar collaborator Sounwave and Zoë Kravitz, who also lends background vocals to the track—has a sultry melody not unlike that of “False God,” while the lyrics look to the feminist discontent first explored on “The Man” and “betty.” “All they keep asking me / Is if I’m gonna be your bride / The only kinda girl they see / Is a one night or a wife,” Swift sings, again resenting the narrative that women in power can’t exist in the gray area.
And there’s no shortage of Swiftian metaphor on the album, either. She wears a “blood-soaked gown” on “You’re On Your Own, Kid,” dresses for “revenge” on “Vigilante Shit” and becomes the “Midnight Rain” itself on the song of the same name. She’s also still doing something other pop megastars aren’t: packing her songs with books’ worth of narrative. The alt-rock “You’re On Your Own, Kid” is rich without being overly wordy or sappy, and on the equally gratifying “Mastermind,” Swift claims, “None of it was accidental,” rather than submitting to the awesome randomness of the universe as on folklore’s “invisible string.”
Like her metaphors, Swift’s music has always matured with her. Her first few country records featured hotheaded teenagers falling in love, breaking up and feeling the pain at a rate that’s only possible among the hormone-ravaged. At age 25, she released 1989, the perfect pop background to strutting through singledom. After falling in love—for real, for real—she basked in the glow on Lover. During the pandemic, she stretched her legs and made her most inward-looking music with her indie heroes. Now she’s 32, and Midnights is the sound of twentysomethings becoming thirtysomethings. It’s 1989 without the radio hits, Reputation without the hyperbole. It’s her take on glassy and splashy poptronica. But as ever, Swift’s lyrics can still cut like glass or cast a spell. No matter what era she’s in, it’s the stories—more than anything else—that will always work the hardest. That’s why Taylor Swift is pop royalty. When she tells you she’s a mastermind, believe her.
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.