“Meet me at midnight,” Taylor Swift coos at the outset of her 10th studio album, “Midnights,” which was released Friday as the clock struck 12 a.m. The album, which retells what she called “the stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life” when she revealed it in late August, is sleek and knowing while possessing a vulnerability that allows for admitting wee-hours insecurities and reflecting on past nights’ mistakes.
Swift has had a prolific decade so far, putting out two new albums — “Folklore” and “Evermore,” both from 2020 — as well as full-album re-recordings of older pieces of her discography (“Fearless” and “Red,” both of which came out last year). And three hours after “Midnights” arrived on streaming platforms, Swift released seven more tracks produced during the album’s sessions that, she said, felt more appropriate for 3 a.m.
As befitting an album meant to depict late-night soul-searching, “Midnights” has a hazy, low-lit feel, with bass-heavy musical beds framing Swift’s unmistakable voice. At times, that instrument is also swathed in shadow — but it remains no less potent, in part because the effects placed on it parallel the way late-hour memories can be unclear on the details of what happened yet possess a precision-grade knowledge of the emotions conjured by those events.
When Swift announced her fifth album, “1989,″ eight years ago, she called it her first pop album, and “Midnights” puts a bow on her transition from Nashville upstart to chart-ruling superstar. Working with her longtime collaborator Jack Antonoff (Lorde, Lana Del Rey), Swift makes “Midnights” immersive both lyrically and musically; the swirling “Maroon,” a wistful recollection of a past whirlwind romance, pairs her parsing of the past with a guitar drone that feels like a sorrow-filled Greek chorus, while “Bejeweled” sparkles like its title, with Swift defiantly flaunting her fabulousness in metaphor-rich lyrics that are precisely enunciated so as to drive her point home more fully.
“Midnights” also possesses a playful streak, which comes in part from the ways Swift’s work has evolved in recent years. From her earliest releases, Swift was very up-front about using her real-life happenings as creative inspiration for her lyrics, causing listeners to engage in elaborate cross-referencing between her social media posts, the gossip pages, and her music (among other primary texts); on “Folklore” and “Evermore,” though, she began writing songs from other characters’ perspectives, a move that offered a different view of how strong her songcraft had become in the decade-plus since “Tim McGraw” first landed on country radio.
Swift did say in her album announcement that the nights chronicled by this record took place over the course of her life. But songs like the steely-eyed “Vigilante [expletive],” where Swift outlines plans for getting back at wrongdoers over a speaker-rattling beat, play with the idea that her writing has returned to the completely diaristic — a common presumption with female singer-songwriters, and one that Swift’s last two records helped explode.
“Midnight Rain,” a musing about a long-gone ex, also needles that notion. A refrain throughout the slow-burning, R&B-tinged cut mulls over the differences between an ambitious woman and her partner’s ultimate desires: “He wanted a bride, I was making my own name,” Swift recalls, her breathy, airy voice pitched down in a way that, intended or not, interrogates the heterosexual binary being described. Their divergent dreams worked out, mostly — Swift reached TV-appearance levels of success, although the “midnights like this” she sings of, where her thoughts tumble back in time, indicate at least some tumult in her life.
Taylor Swift has had a singular ascent through the pop world, and even though it’s hard to believe she can hit any higher points, “Midnights” continues that rise. It’s undeniably a Swift record — her plaintive soprano has been one of pop’s most recognizable voices since the late ‘00s — but it takes unexpected roads to arrive at its pop-bliss destination, much like one of those late-night adventures where any path taken may result in a revelatory experience.
Maura Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.