Opener “Lavender Haze” is the best song on the record by far, a red herring for what’s, unfortunately, not to come. A combination of reputation’s pulsating moodiness and Lover’s dreamy-eyed romanticism, it’s unquestionably the direction Midnights should have gone in. Attempting to shield her relationship from the public (“I’m damned if I do give a damn what people say”), the lavender haze acts as a cloak where she and long-term partner Joe Alwyn can relax and enjoy the solitude of one another. “Midnight Rain” reckons with love as well, detailing a boyfriend who pined for a simple life, whereas Taylor wanted to chase stardom. “He wanted it comfortable, I wanted that pain / He wanted a bride, I was making my own name,” she sings.
She dives deep into romance again later on the tracklist, first with the simple pleasures of life, looked-over banalities of time at home together on “Sweet Nothing”, with the beautiful line “All you ever wanted from me was sweet nothing.” She plays with the idea of fate on “Mastermind”, saying that she brought about her and Alwyn’s relationship, not leaving it up to chance (“You and I ended up in the same room / At the same time / …What if I told you none of it was accidental?”). Taylor has often been lauded as a mastermind by fans — lacing album and song clues in practically everything she says or does — and here, she owns the persona.
The seven bonus, particularly ones with Aaron Dessner, cement the mood, often outshining actual album tracks. “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” packs an emotional punch about her relationship with John Mayer when she was 19 — often written about by Taylor, but here still hurts the same. “I regret you all the time,” she admits. “Give me back my girlhood, it was mine first.” “High Infidelity” is similarly intense, documenting a loveless relationship that has dissolved. “Put on your records and regret me,” she advises. These tracks are lighter, sonically, infused with the personality Dessner brings to exquisitely-paced songs like “Renegade”, “right where you left me”, and “cardigan.”
Much like how Red and Lover were too big to not have some bland pockets, Midnights has some of Swift’s biggest clunkers to date. The candy-colored sparkly synths of “Bejeweled” read like a slightly more grown-up version of “ME!”; “Labyrinth” is a downgrade of “The Archer”, but less high-stakes with its generic lyricism; “Vigilante Shit” feels like a terrible Billie Eilish impression, its cutthroat lines (“Draw the cat eye sharp enough to kill a man”) lacking the instrumentation to back it up. Lead single “Anti-Hero” centers around a corny phrase that could be plucked from 2015 Tumblr (“It’s me, hi / I’m the problem, it’s me”) when a better one waits two lines away (“I’ll stare directly at the sun, but never at the mirror.”)
Midnights has some great ideas, particularly “Lavender Haze”, “Midnight Rain”, and several of the bonus tracks, but truly baffling lyrics pop up along the way (“Me and karma vibe like that”; “It’s like snow on the beach / Weird but fucking beautiful”; “Sometimes I feel like everyone is a sexy baby”). The intense and sophisticated lyricism present on her two 2020 albums only poke out in shimmering glances here, leading to a gut-wrenching feeling that there’s just no real hit here. The album’s biggest crime is the lack of signature Swiftian peaks, which makes the lows feel so much worse. Midnights feels cozy, perhaps a little too much so — slathered in synths and simplified lyrics, it’s out of character for her to be this middle-of-the-road.