Surely no one needs another article beating up on the poor old trendy dads — certainly not me, and I imagine that goes for plenty of Esquire readers, too. But it’s impossible to deny that there was something a little dispiriting about the patronising response among my kind to Taylor Swift’s brace of excellent 2020 lockdown albums, Folklore and Evermore.
Here was the sad spectacle of craft-beer drinking, Birkenstocks-wearing sourdough-botherers awakening to the sublime talents of a truly great pop star only when she deigned to play the game by their arcane rules, recruiting beardie-approved misery-meisters Bon Iver and the National to assist her in the making of a pair of thoughtful, folk-influenced records, heavy on pretty, introspective songs and winsome bucolic imagery, lighter on stadium-shaking bangers and glossy, fashion-forward ‘fits.
With Folklore and Evermore, Swift played the Mojo generation like a fiddle. Short of appearing on 6 Music talking about her love for vintage football jerseys, New Order B-sides and single origin coffee beans, it’s hard to see how she could have endeared herself any more violently to a constituency of music fans who likely previously encountered her work in the time-honoured fashion of fathers of tweenage daughters for the past half-century: by standing awkwardly alongside their squealing progeny at pop concerts, going extra steady on the plastic pints while wincing at the price of the merch.
But true Taylor fans know that, while Folklore and Evermore contained wonderful examples of Swift’s craft as a songwriter and lyricist, the masterpiece in her oeuvre remains 1989, released in 2014, when she was just 24 years old. That album, her generation’s Thriller, or Like a Prayer, is now established as a pop classic. (And no, not because of Ryan Adams’ creepy cover version). Hitching Eighties pop to Nineties electronica, then blazing down the Springsteen highway in a tank top and blue jeans, 1989 was American pop like they’ve hardly made it since that same year: histrionic, widescreen, catchy as a coronavirus.
1989 followed four albums of country and country-tinged pop (Swift began her career as a teen Nashville star)‚ and preceded two further releases, the dyspeptic — though still hit-filled — Reputation (2017), and the soppy — though still hit-filled — Lover (2019). Last year, following a dispute with her former record label over the ownership of the master recordings of her first six albums (up to and including Reputation), she rerecorded and released two early albums as Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and Red (Taylor’s Version).
Great pop music is for anyone with ears to listen to it, but it’s when you are a very young that the stuff that is in the charts right now is most meaningful and exciting. My daughter, who recently turned 13, has been a Swifty for as long as she can remember. (She would like me to point out that she also listens to Eminem and is equally pumped for the new Arctic Monkeys album, also out today. But I know and she knows — and Taylor definitely knows — that the first cut is the deepest.) Her first ever concert was Taylor Swift at Wembley on the Reputation Tour, in the summer of 2018. I was there, too. It was epic. (The merch was extortionate.)
So, much excitement in my house about the release of Midnights, Swift’s tenth original studio album. Having already poured approvingly over the artwork — I’m saying Seventies Shrimpton; she’s saying #makeupgoals — we received our early copy on Wednesday and sat down together to listen to it. Well, she sat down. I remained standing because I have a slipped disc in my back because I am ancient. Then she stood up, too. Because who wants to listen to Taylor Swift sitting down, anyway?
Midnights starts as it means to go on, with the slow disco of “Lavender Haze”, the only song on the album to feature multiple co-writers and co-producers, including Kendrick Lamar producer Sounwave. “Maroon” is woozy synthpop with a killer vocal and lyrics worthy of a Ryan Murphy soap opera. “Anti-Hero” sounds like the soundtrack to a lost John Hughes movie; Swift’s Eighties references are unironic and unashamed, and all the better for that.
I suppose that Folklorists may be disappointed at the return to pure pop of “Bejeweled” — but as she says herself, it proves she “can still make the whole place shimmer”. “You’re On Your Own, Kid” sounds closer to The Killers — another millennial act enamoured of Eighties pop — than it does like anything that might have come out of Laurel Canyon circa 1971. “Question…?” would have fitted nicely on Lover, not so nicely on Evermore.
But it’s not like Swift has abandoned the contemplative spirit or the narrative concerns of the lockdown albums. “Midnight Rain” is about a woman (a famous woman) looking back on a small-town marriage, long escaped. The bracingly vicious “Vigilante Shit” is a revenge fantasy told from the point of view of a woman scorned, who recruits her lover’s ex-wife to her dastardly plan, the story told over a menacing strip club bassline. As ever, Swift flip flops between bitter recrimination, wistful nostalgia and romantic ecstasy. By the time “Labyrinth” comes around she’s fretting about falling in love again.
Almost entirely written, produced and performed with the ubiquitous Jack Antonoff, Swift’s most constant collaborator since 1989 (he also does for Lorde and Lana Del Ray), Midnights makes room for only one guest appearance, Del Ray taking a supporting role on the swooning “Snow on the Beach”. There are a handful of songwriting credits for others, including Swift’s boyfriend, the actor Joe Alwyn — listed as William Bowery — on the pretty “Sweet Nothing”. Things get livelier with the return of Sounwave for the swirling incantation of “Karma”; by this time next week, without even trying millions of people, some of them probably dads, will have learnt the lyrics to that particular mantra. (“Karma is a cat / Purring in my lap” Etc.)
So: thirteen new tracks, three-quarters of an hour, the pop album of the year. Business as usual.
Final scores, out of 10.
Me: 8. I mean she’s great, but she’s no Joni Mitchell.
Midnights by Taylor Swift is out now. This article was first published on Esquire UK.