The aforementioned nightmare plot unfurls seamlessly across the bridge of “Anti-Hero,” a standout from the superstar songwriter’s 10th album, “Midnights.” She’s been hyping the whole thing as an inquiry into the “intensities of that mystifying mad hour,” but despite this music’s vaguely soporific sound design, Swift doesn’t comport herself as an insomniac on a hypnagogic mind quest so much as the head of the class staying up late to crush all of her extra credit homework assignments.
This is an album about memories, the kind that visit after dark when the clock folds its hands, but throughout “Midnights,” Swift sounds wide awake and half haunted at best, largely falling back on cozy timbres and familiar tropes. Producer Jack Antonoff extracts endless amounts of pillow-fill from his synthesizers while Swift nestles deep into her comfort zone, making everything sound expert, alert, scrupulous and routine. Big cities brim with romantic wonder. Kisses feel fated and world-spinning. Colors are relentlessly symbolic. Her songs are like rom-coms without any com.
It all sounds pleasant and unobjectionable, and the only reason any of it feels surprising is because Swift seemed to be using her last two albums — a pair of relatively spartan buddy recordings from 2020, “Folklore” and “Evermore” — to sharpen her lyricism into something less cookie-cutter and more scalpel-like. “I picked the petals, he loves me not,” she sings on one of her new songs, “You’re On Your Own, Kid,” addressing an anonymous flame without a blink. (If you missed the cheap thrill of reorganizing the paparazzi photos on your conspiracy whiteboard, “Midnights” has plenty of “is X song about Y guy?” games to play, too, you sicko.)
But because Swift loves a reliable narrative structure, she saves the best for last: a delicately percolating song titled “Mastermind” that casually throws her songbook’s guiding principles into question. The first verse begins with a sympathetic cosmos aligning its stars in the name of love, but by the time Swift reaches the refrain, she’s asking, “What if I told you none of it was accidental and the first night that you saw me nothing was gonna stop me?” She’s suggesting that the notion of romantic fate — the rebar that allows so much of the Swiftian songworld to stand upright — does not, in fact, exist. Desire is intentional. Love is the result of that intentionality. She’s like Oz pulling back her own curtain.
Then — fwomp! — the curtain drops back down again, because a mere three hours after “Midnights” materialized online, Swift released a deluxe version with seven more songs tacked onto the album’s back end. Songs about how love is a “great war,” and how a “picket fence is sharp as knives,” and how “every single thing I touch becomes sick with sadness.” One particular lyric on the album’s final final ballad should give us great pause: “If it feels like a trap, you’re already in one.”