Taylor Swift’s “Beautiful Ghosts” drips with theatricality and melancholia. Her latest single lacks the saccharine bubblegum-pop bounce of “Lover,” her newest album, which Swift released Aug. 23. This is perhaps for the better — songs like “ME!” and “You Need to Calm Down” are canned, artificial, and sweet enough to inspire a toothache. They are what comes to mind when one thinks of factory-produced music: airy, bubbly, and entirely devoid of substance.
“Beautiful Ghosts” has some substance, at least. The song comes from the motion picture soundtrack of the live-action adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats,” which hit theaters on Dec. 20. The song represents a pivotal moment for Victoria (Francesca Hayward), a character in the musical, when she expresses at once a longing for her naïve past and an apprehensive excitement for a liberated future.
The song is built upon this dichotomy: what came before, and what is to come after. In that way, it parallels “Memory,” arguably one of the most famous songs from the original “Cats” soundtrack, when the Grizabella character warbles about her lost past while thinking ahead toward what is to come.
“Beautiful Ghosts” lacks the catchiness of “Memory,” to be sure, perhaps because the song itself does not truly begin to pick up until a minute and a half in. It is also more professedly, outwardly tragic; whereas “Memory” skirts emotion, “Beautiful Ghosts” states it outright, almost blandly. Lyrics include “So I watch from the dark, wait for my life to start / With no beauty in my memory."
The song deals with Victoria’s lack of love in her past, abandoned to wander the streets on her own. The chorus, in the same vein as the lyrics above, begins with, “All that I wanted was to be wanted.” It is so soberly solemn that it verges on emo, reminiscent of some of Celine Dion’s lesser works. Hope for a wilder future does not enter the equation at all until the very end of the song, and, even then, it is marred by memories of “beautiful ghosts.” The opposition of a lonely past and a brighter future does not provide the complexity required for proclamations of such abject misery. The feeling behind the song comes off as shallow, lacking in both depth and range.
This all said, there are merits to be found in “Beautiful Ghosts.” Swift’s vocals are excellent — perhaps surprisingly so, given her latest work. She builds into the song nicely: While the emotion of the lyrics may be stilted, even awkward, Swift does an excellent job of adding passion and warmth where she can.
Perhaps the best part of the entire song is the bridge: “And so maybe my home isn’t what I had known / What I thought it would be / But I feel so alive with these phantoms of night / And I know that this life isn’t safe, but it’s wild and free.” Not only is this representative of an emotional catharsis in a strikingly poignant way, but it is also executed excellently by Swift, who encapsulates everything that a musical ballad should be. If the song begins weakly, almost whispered, it ends with a tour de force finish.
“Beautiful Ghosts” falls short in many ways, but it isn’t unpleasant to listen to. It’s the kind of song to be switched on after a particularly bad breakup or a fight with a best friend. Certainly, it has a superficial sadness to it, but it also ends on a piqued, bittersweet note — it’s a bildungsroman novel in a song, a coming-of-age realization that one is no longer the person that one used to be. There is a clear demarcation between what is, what was, and what will come to be.