Taylor Swift’s Best New Songs Aren’t Technically on Midnights

In the final track of Midnights, Taylor Swift confesses to being a “mastermind” who plans so carefully that she can’t possibly lose. The song is addressed to her lover, but she might as well be singing about the meticulous rollout of her new album. Over the course of nearly two months, she posted cryptic videos teasing the music without allowing anyone to hear a single note. She put together a “manifest” that looked like something out of the metaverse. She sold multiple versions of the vinyl, encouraging fans to collect them all to form a clock. And she didn’t release a single until the night the album dropped.

The strategy worked: When Midnights arrived, cresting on hype, listeners absorbed the album in full, spreading out the streams among its 13 tracks. As a result, Swift’s 10th studio effort topped Billboard’s Hot 100 chart this week, with songs from the album occupying all of the top 10 slots—making Swift the first artist to do so in history.

[Read: The beautiful banality of Taylor Swift’s Midnights]

And yet, her most effective scheme may be the surprise she saved for her most ardent fans. A few hours after the standard version of Midnights hit airwaves, she released seven bonus songs she called the “3am tracks” as a surprise, writing in an Instagram post, “Lately I’ve been loving the feeling of sharing more of our creative process with you.” Written during the making of Midnights, the additional tunes are less polished than her singles. None of them appears to have been sent to critics in advance, which meant they were largely ignored in initial reviews. None of them is available to purchase physically. None of them made it onto Billboard’s top 10. But despite their relative invisibility and muted debut, they’re the best songs from her Midnights era thus far.

Catchy and cathartic, soulful and snarky, the 3am edition of Midnights may as well be a separate album. Thematically, the lyrics fit the LP’s concept of what keeps Swift up at night, but the songs are structurally more complex than the initial batch of tracks. Unlike those first 13 songs, for which she enlisted the producer Jack Antonoff, three of the bonus songs feature the stylings of Aaron Dessner, Swift’s main collaborator on Folklore and Evermore. The result is a collection that feels more experimental, as if Swift was deliberately noodling with rawer ideas. Swift cuts loose on these extra songs, pushing metaphors a step further than necessary, letting her voice go ragged, and spinning less-than-radio-friendly melodies.

Consider “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve,” the finest and most stirring track from the 3am selection. In it, Swift sings of regret—over how an ex treated her, and over her own naivete, at 19, in embarking on the relationship. The longest song on the extended album, its flood of vivid lyrics and its propulsive melody bring to mind her previous scorcher “All Too Well.” Using religious imagery, Swift dwells on her loss of innocence, collapsing the time between her youth and her adulthood as she exhumes a truth she has long kept buried: “I can’t let this go,” she concedes. “I regret you all the time.” Swift’s voice, too, sounds uncontrolled and unprocessed as the song builds to a desperate climax, her breath catching as she wails, “Living for the thrill of hitting you where it hurts / Give me back my girlhood. It was mine first.”

[Read: Don’t blame a man for Midnights]

That line, like many in Swift’s career, has drawn speculation about her personal life. Yet her best songs linger in a listener’s mind not for the celebrity-gossip fodder they provide, but for the way they seem barely able to contain her emotions. “Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve” may be about a specific relationship, but the anguish in her voice cuts deep no matter the context, and the song’s brilliant tension comes from the way she seems to want to go on and on—and on. I wouldn’t be surprised if, tucked away somewhere in a drawer, there rest half a dozen more verses. Maybe in 10 years there’ll be a 10-minute version she’s ready to produce.

That irrepressible quality, along with an unvarnished richness and fearlessness, can be found across the 3am songs. On the elegiac “Bigger Than the Whole Sky,” another track that has found resonant, personal meaning for some listeners, Swift repeatedly sings the word goodbye in a breathy upper register, like she’s drifting away. On the sexy, strange, and showy “Glitch,” Swift’s voice jumps an octave after the bridge, as if she’s malfunctioning from her lust. The poppy “Paris” tickles the ear; it sounds like a deep cut off 1989, all bouncy pleasures and bubblegum cheer, until the lyrics betray a darker tinge to Swift’s thoughts. “I’m so in love that I might stop breathing,” she sings. Later in the song, she goes further: “I wanna brainwash you,” she cries, “into loving me forever.”

Midnights, the standard edition, is not lacking in interiority. “I really don’t think I’ve delved this far into my insecurities in this detail before,” Swift said about “Anti-Hero,” her lead single. And she’s not wrong: Her songs on the LP explore deeply personal territory, expressing her self-loathing and inner conflicts in punchy, poignant lyrics. But even so, the self-awareness of those tracks comes with a cheeky self-consciousness—it’s her, hi; she’s the problem, it’s her!—that the 3am songs avoid. In “Dear Reader,” the final track of the extended edition of Midnights, Swift addresses her fans directly—and tells them to stop looking to her as a “guiding light.” The immense scrutiny she feels is a subject she’s covered since 2014, when she satirized her notoriety as a serial dater in “Blank Space”; later, she devoted much of her 2017 album, Reputation, to unpacking her overwhelming fame via snarling, defensive earworms. In “Dear Reader,” though, she puts her distress plainly over a melancholic melody: “Darling, darling, please,” she sings. “You wouldn’t take my word for it if you knew who was talking / If you knew where I was walking.”

These extra cuts are, in other words, disarmingly candid; they’re the ones in which she allows herself to be truly messy. In the long lead-up to Midnights’ release, Swift explained that her songs belong in three categories, based on the implement she imagines she’s using as she writes: “Quill Pen” songs use old-fashioned wording, “Fountain Pen” songs offer detailed modern poetry, and “Glitter Gel Pen” songs are playful, even saucy. In the 3am songs, it doesn’t matter what tool she has in her hand. The ink spills all over, bleeding everywhere.

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