Let‘s start with that speech. In September 2022, as Taylor Swift accepted Songwriter-Artist of the Decade honours at the Nashville Songwriter Awards, the headline was that Swift had unveiled an admittedly “dorky” system she’d developed for organising her own songs. Quill Pen, Fountain Pen, Glitter Gel Pen: three categories of lyrics, three imagined tools with which she wrote them, one pretty ingenious way to invite obsessive fans to lovingly obsess all the more. And yet, perhaps the real takeaway was the manner in which she spoke about her craft that night, some 20 years after writing her first song at the age of 12. “I love doing this thing we are fortunate enough to call a job,” she said to a room of her peers. “Writing songs is my life’s work and my hobby and my never-ending thrill. A song can defy logic or time. A good song transports you to your truest feelings and translates those feelings for you. A good song stays with you even when people or feelings don’t.” On Midnights, her tenth LP and fourth in as many years—if you don’t count the two she’s just re-recorded and buttressed with dozens of additional tracks—Swift sounds like she’s really enjoying her work, playing with language like kids do with gum, thrilling to the texture of every turn of phrase, the charge in every melody and satisfying rhyme. Alongside long-time collaborator Jack Antonoff, she’s set out here to tell “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout [her] life”, as she phrased it in a message to Apple Music subscribers. It’s a concept that naturally calls for a nocturnal palette: slower tempos, hushed atmosphere, negative space like night sky. The sound is fully modern (synths you’d want to eat or sleep in, low end that sits comfortably on your chest), while the aesthetic (soft focus, wood panelling, tracklist on the cover) is decidedly mid-century, much like the Mad Men-inspired title of its brooding opener, “Lavender Haze”—a song about finding refuge in the glow of intimacy. “Talk your talk and go viral,” she sings, in reference to the maelstrom of outside interest in her six-year relationship with actor Joe Alwyn. “I just want this love spiral.” (A big shout to Antonoff for those spongy backup vocals, btw.) In large part, Midnights is a record of interiors, Swift letting us glimpse the chaos inside her head (“Anti-Hero”, wall-to-wall zingers) and the stillness of her relationship (“Sweet Nothing”, co-written by Alwyn under his William Bowery pseudonym). For “Snow on the Beach”, she teams up with Lana Del Rey—an artist whose instinct for mood and theatrical framing seems to have influenced Swift’s recent catalogue—recalling the magic of an impossible night over a backdrop of pizzicato violin, sleigh bells and dreamy Mellotron, like the earliest hours of Christmas morning. “I’ve never seen someone lit from within,” Swift sings. “Blurring out my periphery.” But then there’s “Bejeweled”, a late, 1989-like highlight on which she announces to an unappreciative partner, a few seconds in: “And by the way, I’m going out tonight.” And then out Swift goes, striding through the centre of the song like she would the room: “I can still make the whole place shimmer,” she sings, relishing that last word. “And when I meet the band, they ask, ‘Do you have a man?’/I could still say, ‘I don’t remember.’” There are traces of melancholy layered in (see: “sapphire tears on my face”), but the song feels like a triumph, the sort of unabashed, extroverted fun that would have probably seemed out of place in the lockdown indie of 2020’s folklore and evermore. But here, side by side with songs and scenes of such writerly indulgence, it’s right at home—more proof that the terms “singer-songwriter” and “universal pop star” aren’t mutually exclusive ideas. “What’s a girl gonna do?” Swift asks at its climax. “A diamond’s gotta shine.”

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