When Taylor Swift gets around to releasing bonus tracks for an album — whether it’s the following day or, in the case of her Big Machine re-recordings, as much as a decade and a half later — it’s usually pretty evident that she exercised sound editorial judgment on what to leave out the first time around, however absorbing the outtakes are on their own. There have been exceptions along the way: It’s difficult to think of “New Romantics” not being an essential part of “1989,” for instance. And the two “Evermore” bonus tracks, “Right Where You Left Me” and “It’s Time to Go,” stood up as being as good as anything on the standard edition, and right-proper album closers. But like so many good writers, she knows what she’s doing as a self-editor, too.
That proves to be the case with the seven bonus tracks on the “3 am” deluxe edition of “Midnights,” which expand the standard edition by roughly 50% — and which came out a mere three hours after the public first got a listen to the pared-down version. None feel like they were unnecessarily kicked off the 13-track running order. But fans have reason to be glad she’s put them out into the lavender ether. There are two very solid and sonically compelling tracks that would have been perfectly good additions if she’d expanded the track list from 13 to a less lucky 15: “Glitch” and “Dear Reader.” And there are two more that will be essential for anyone looking for a window into her past IRL relationships: “High Infidelity” and “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve.” Those are more than reason enough to move “3 am” into the appendix of a daytime discography.
The credits alone reveal something intriguing about the creation of “Midnights,” which she hasn’t deigned to do any substantial interviews about. As it turns out, Jack Antonoff was apparently not always destined to be her sole key creative collaborator across the entire album. Aaron Dessner, who co-produced all but one track on her last all-new album, “Evermore,” and split duties with Antonoff on the preceding “Folklore,” was involved in the process, before she ended up going with Antonoff across the board for the finished album. Three of the seven bonus tracks have the National member at the co-helm.
That’s tantalizing: “Evermore” may be the most musically rich album of Swift’s career, and certainly much of that is due to the unusual variety of mostly acoustic beds Dessner laid for her topline melodies and lyrics. But none of the three Dessner tracks here are remotely in that style. It sounds as if he was given the same brief that Antonoff was, to go back to a pre-“Folklore” style based primarily in synths and programming. But, while passable, none of his three tracks sound especially inspired; they sound like more wan versions of what the other producer excels at. Let’s hope she continues to work with him, but maybe in the musical arena where he shines the brightest, rather than trying to adapt himself to this one.
The musical standout among the bonuses is “Glitch,” in which Antonoff is joined as a producer by frequent Kendrick Lamar collaborator Sounwave, who also shows up for an assist on two of the best tracks on the core “Midnights,” “Lavender Haze” and “Karma.” On “Glitch,” things get high-concept, but not overly distractingly so, as Swift sings about how falling madly in love with her current beau of many years was a hitch in her plan to stay friends (because every woman longs to be just pals with Joe Alwyn) or to keep the budding relationship casual. The “Glitch” music matches the theme by sounding only about 3% buggy.
The other high point from a musical angle, and also one of the extended album’s better sets of lyrics, is the slow, vibey “Dear Reader,” which borrows a phrase from Emily Bronte — not for the first time in Swift’s ouevre — but more as a warning to Swift’s fans than a welcoming invitation. “Never take advice from someone who’s falling apart,” she tells Swifties, as an open-ended mea culpa. (Elsewhere on “Midnights,” Swift actually quotes her own NYC commencement speech from earlier this year, but obviously this pay-no-heed admonition is not such a quotation.) “You wouldn’t take my word for it if you knew who was talking” — well, here’s a little of the “Anti-Hero” thought sneaking in. “You should find another guiding light,” she sings, before adding the brilliant punchline: “But I shine so bright.”
Lyrically, though, “High Infidelity” and “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” will suck up all the oxygen in the room for the time being, intrigue-wise, for seeming to obviously call back to Swift’s well-publicized prior celebrity relationships, with Calvin Harris and John Mayer, respectively. That’s something she studiously avoids on the core version of “Midnights,” and hasn’t indulged in much in the albums that came before it, either — she’s tended to stick pretty close to the present day, when she’s in memoir mode — so it’s surprising that she went there. And rewarding, for fans who may reasonably think they’re going to learn a little more about what really went down behind the scenes in those two tabloid-fodder instances. For all her statements about protecting her current scenario’s privacy, she doesn’t seem to be averse at shining more light into the dark corners of her history.
“Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” is essentially a reiteration of “Dear John,” the lacerating track from her third album, “Speak Now,” that established just how laceratingly confessional of a writer Swift could and would turn out to be, with the benefit of 12 more years of hindsight. She’s not leaving any doubt that she continues to feel damaged into the present day: If she’d known better, Swift sings, “I damn sure never would’ve danced with the devil at 19 / And the God’s honest truth is that the pain was heaven / And now that I’m grown, I’m scared of ghosts.” The theme that she was too young continues from the preceding song to its sequel, as Swift sings, “Give me back my girlhood, it was mine first” and admits, “The wound won’t close… / I regret you all the time.”
It’s riveting… and forcing it into the running order of the more playful, mostly present-day “Midnights” would have been the wrong call, even if, speaking to the album’s concept, these regrets do sound exactly like the stuff insomnia is made of.
Conversely, on “High Fidelity,” Swift sounds like she’s taking responsibility for some of what wrong in another celebrity relationship… and not feeling much more guilty about checking out on a love affair than she did when she was possibly writing about the same circumstances, or at least a similar scenario, in “Reputation’s” “Getaway Car.” The specific reason fans have pegged it to her relationship with Harris is the specific date she placed in a lyric — “Do you really want to know where I was April 29th?” — which happens to date-check the release date for a single she co-wrote with Harris, ”
Conversely, on “High Fidelity,” Swift sounds like she’s taking responsibility for some of what wrong in another celebrity relationship… and not feeling much more guilty about checking out on a love affair than she did when she was possibly writing about the same circumstances, or at least a similar scenario, in “Reputation’s” “Getaway Car.” The specific reason fans have pegged it to her relationship with Harris is the specific date she placed in a lyric — “Do you really want to know where I was April 29th?” — which happens to date-check the release date for a 2016 single she co-wrote with Harris, “This is What You Came For,” that came out shortly before they were known to be parting ways. “Do I really have to tell you how he brought me back to life?” she says of the figure that apparently rescued her from the alliance in question. Regrets, she’s had a few, but getting out of this particular romance may not be one of them.
Universality enters the picture, amid all these down-to-the-minute specifics, as Swift warns: “You know there’s many different ways that you can kill the one you love / The slowest way is never loving them enough.” This may go down as one of the most prosaic lyrical couplets in the Taylor Swift Book of Sayings, but sometimes plainspokenness has something to be said for it, amid the cleverer wordplay she’s so good at. At 3 a.m., maybe, abject cleverness isn’t quite as crucial as the cold, hard truth.
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