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Taylor Swift's 'Midnights' mixes late-night dreaminess with steely control

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Taylor Swift's new studio album, her 10th, is called "Midnights," which she describes as the story of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life. Rock critic Ken Tucker says there's certainly a late-night dreaminess to its sound but also a bracing amount of Swift's clearheaded thoughts about love and life as a pop star. On the day of its release, "Midnights" set a record for the most streamed album in a single day on both Spotify and Apple Music. Here's Ken's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAVENDER HAZE")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Staring at the ceiling with you, oh, you don't ever say too much, and you don't really read into my melancholia. I've been under scrutiny, yeah, oh, yeah. You handle it beautifully, yeah, oh, yeah. All of this is new to me. I feel a lavender haze creeping up on me, so real. I'm damned if I do give a damn what people say.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Taylor Swift begins her new album with "Lavender Haze." Woozy and dreamy in a manner that befits a collection called "Midnights," "Lavender Haze" has a jittery snare drum hook. The song pulses beneath a lyric about being, quote-unquote, "under scrutiny." But she's not whining. She's conceding she likes attention and uses it for her own purposes. She is, as she sings on this song, a mastermind of her romantic life, of her career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASTERMIND")

SWIFT: (Singing) Once upon a time, the planets and the fates and all the stars aligned. You and I ended up in the same room at the same time. And the touch of a hand lit the fuse of a chain reaction of countermoves to assess the equation of you. Checkmate. I couldn't lose. What if I told you none of it was accidental and the first night that you saw me, nothing was going to stop me? I laid the groundwork. And then, just like clockwork, the dominoes cascaded in a line. What if I told you I'm a mastermind?

TUCKER: "Mastermind" is all about looking back at your past and declaring that that's how you planned it to happen. It's a song that combines self-delusion with self-confidence and contains one of the best lines anyone's ever written about Taylor Swift. Quote, "I swear I'm only cryptic and Machiavellian 'cause I care." Say what you will about this immensely popular woman whose self-absorption drives some people crazy. She's also gloriously self-aware. Just listen to the song "Anti-Hero."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANTI-HERO")

SWIFT: (Singing) I have this thing where I get older but just never wiser. Midnights become my afternoons. When my depression works the graveyard shift, all of the people I've ghosted stand there in the room. I should not be left to my own devices. They come with prices and vices. I end up in crisis. Tale as old as time. I wake up screaming from dreaming. One day, I'll watch as you're leaving 'cause you got tired of my scheming. For the last time. It's me. Hi. I'm the problem. It's me. At teatime, everybody agrees. I'll stare directly...

TUCKER: On "Anti-Hero," Swift really owns it. I'm the problem. It's me, she says, repeatedly - at another point, castigating what she terms her covert narcissism. Really, this is the kind of singer-songwriter confession some of us used to hope Carly Simon or John Mayer would eventually admit to. In the spirit of sisterhood, Swift invites the contemporary master of film noir pop Lana Del Rey to collaborate on a surreal landscape painting called "Snow On The Beach."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNOW ON THE BEACH")

SWIFT: (Singing) One night a few moons ago, I saw flecks of what could have been lights, but it might just have been you passing by unbeknownst to me. Life is emotionally abusive, and time can't stop me quite like you did. And my flight was awful, thanks for asking. I'm unglued thanks to you. And it's like snow at the beach. Weird, but it was beautiful. Flying in a dream. Stars by the pocketful. You wanting me tonight feels impossible. But it's coming down. No sound. It's all around like snow on the beach, like snow on the beach...

TUCKER: For her midnight reveries, Swift has employed a familiar collaborator, producer Jack Antonoff, who's now worked on no fewer than six of her albums. Together, they've built a new sound for her. Percolating synthesizers largely replace the guitars that began her career. Her voice is pushed forward to become a conversational murmur. Her writing is dominated by the lovely rhyming quatrains she composes so tightly, so rigorously, that any minor flaw, as when she uses the phrase, break a smile, when anyone else would say crack a smile - you wonder if she did it on purpose to mess with your mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEJEWELED")

SWIFT: (Singing) Baby love, I think I've been a little too kind. Didn't notice you walking all over my peace of mind in the shoes I gave you as a present. Putting someone first only works when you're in their top five. And by the way, I'm going out tonight. Best believe I'm still bejeweled. When I walk in the room, I can still make the whole place shimmer. And when I meet the band, they ask, do you have a man? I could still say I don't remember. Familiarity breeds contempt. Don't put me in the basement.

TUCKER: Taylor Swift came to prominence as a teenager strumming vivid lyrics too artful to be dismissed as country diary entries. She's now a 30-something who toys languidly with her fans' supposed knowledge of her. Few musicians disseminate such pleasure by exerting such steely control.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker reviewed Taylor Swift's new album called "Midnights." If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, like our conversation with award-winning chef Sean Sherman, who specializes in Indigenous cuisine, or with sportswriter and commentator Jemele Hill whose tweets about Donald Trump ignited a controversy, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON STIERNBERG'S "TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME")

DAVIES: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON STIERNBERG'S "TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.