When the US pop trio Haim brought out Taylor Swift for a surprise guest appearance at their concert at the O2 Arena in London in July, it seemed to suggest one thing: after two years of folk-adjacent releases, and four years away from the road, pop-star Swift was on her way back. “I haven’t been on stage in a very long time,” she told the crowd. “It’s very nice!”
That impression was confirmed a month later when Swift announced the release of her 10th studio album, Midnights, onstage at the MTV Video Music awards. She later revealed it would tell “stories of 13 sleepless nights scattered throughout my life … a journey through terrors and sweet dreams. The floors we pace and the demons we face.”
A week from its 21 October release date, she is yet to share a note of music – or do any interviews, leading to giddy speculation over its sound. Her understated pair of 2020 surprise albums, Folklore and Evermore, were made with members of the National and Bon Iver and billed as “alternative” on streaming services. Midnights, however, marks an official return to “pop” and features a guest appearance from the US alt-pop star Lana Del Rey.
Fans have linked the 70s aesthetic of the artwork to the sultry horn-laden song False God from Swift’s 2019 album Lover; the styling, said Guardian fashion critic Jess Cartner-Morley, harked back to the cover of Roxy Music’s 1974 album Country Life, or Guy Bourdin’s classic French Vogue shoots.
Whatever its sound, one thing is certain: despite being released in the last two months of the year, Midnights will easily become one of 2022’s biggest-selling albums. Chart positions are important to Swift, who is releasing umpteen vinyl variations to encourage fans to buy multiple copies. Nonetheless, she faces chart competition from Arctic Monkeys, who are also returning on 21 October with The Car, their first album in four years.
“It’s going to be very tight,” said Martin Talbot, the chief executive of Official Charts. “It feels like the first big week of the big Christmas season.”
Swift and Arctic Monkeys, he continued, provide “a fascinating comparison. Both have been on the scene about 15 years. Arctic Monkeys have historically tended to have bigger first-week sales, so you’d think they’re the ones to beat.”
Swift has seven albums in the UK Top 100 including Red (Taylor’s Version), a rerecording of her 2012 album that is part of a project to reclaim ownership of her master recordings after the rights to her first six albums were sold from under her.
Having had more albums out recently may prove a disadvantage, said Talbot. “There’s always a danger that you spread your appeal. What is quite possible, and will suit both in some respects, is that Arctic Monkeys will win the first week but the medium-term race until the end of the year could well be Taylor’s.”
Midnights is likely to hang around longer than recent superstar releases by the likes of Adele, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé, which have performed relatively poorly, thanks to Swift’s popularity on streaming services. But regardless of the chart outcome, Swift will have cause to celebrate. In recent years, she has rehabilitated her image after spats with Kanye West and his then-wife, Kim Kardashian, affected public perceptions of her so significantly that she named her 2017 album Reputation, singing that it had “never been worse”.
Since then, the songwriterly Folklore and Evermore brought a new kind of acclaim to an artist with origins in country music and her greatest successes in mainstream pop. “She didn’t need it in my book but she got that final bit of critical respect off those albums,” said Dave Fawbert, the founder of Swiftogedden, a nationwide club night that plays exclusively Swift songs. “All those 50-year-old men who dismissed her were forced to admit how good she was.”
Swift has made forays into film – she has a small role in David O’Russell’s Amsterdam, and won acclaim for her music video direction. She has positioned herself as an enthusiastic cheerleader of younger women musicians, many of whom were inspired by her, after being open about being made to feel competitive with her female peers in her early pop reign.
She is said to have worked with more women than usual on Midnights – a notable absence in her peak pop years – and has publicly shown her support for the likes of Drivers Licence singer Olivia Rodrigo, the Brits breakthrough artist winner Griff and Phoebe Bridgers – whom she invited to sing on Nothing New, a song she wrote aged 21 about her fear of being replaced by a younger model that was released on the Red (Taylor’s Version) bonus material.
“I feel like she’s been quite conscious about trying to set a new norm for the next generation of girls who are coming through the industry,” said Griff, who met Swift – and shared chips with her backstage – at the 2021 Brit awards. “You see how she approaches collaborations in such an uplifting, genuine way. That influenced the way I collaborate. When I did one with [Norwegian pop star] Sigrid, I wanted it to feel like two girls coming together because we have a genuine friendship and want to see each other win.”
Swift has also become more voluble on political issues and the rights of women and creators after long being criticised for her silence. In 2017, she gave a fearsome performance on the stand during a trial in which a US radio DJ tried to sue her for allegedly having him wrongfully sacked after he assaulted her at a meet-and-greet in 2013. She has accused Donald Trump of “stoking the fires of white supremacy and racism” and stood up for abortion rights after the US supreme court overturned of Roe v Wade.
When she signed with Universal in 2018, Swift made it a condition of her deal that any sale of the label’s Spotify shares result in a non-recoupable distribution of money to their artists. (The label has not yet sold its shares, which have fallen in value.) Today, said Griff, “it feels like she’s taken back her voice. As a female artist, your voice can get skewed or your point of view can get judged, but it’s clear she’s in the driving seat and it’s really inspiring.”
Next Friday, then, commences a new chapter in the Swift saga, almost exactly 16 years since she released her self-titled debut album. Ahead of special Midnights release parties that night, Swiftogedden’s Fawbert will be up early cramming the album to work out where to put each of the new songs in the set. Plus, he said: “I’ve got to try and learn a few choruses.”