Sunday, March 6, 2016

Ingrid Michaelson - Lights Out

Of all of the female artists in modern mainstream pop, arguably none of them are easier to like (or rather, more difficult to dislike) than Ingrid Michaelson. She writes catchy and quirky songs with pristine pop sensibilities, but she never gets bogged down in plasticized overproduction like Katy Perry or Lady Gaga do. She works with outside producers and songwriters, but she never feels like she’s shamelessly baiting mainstream radio like Rihanna does. Her songs have been hits, but they’ve never crossed into overplay or overkill territory like Adele’s have. And she frequently imbues her songs with emotional, diaristic honesty, but never to the point where she feels like she’s wracking up as many heartbreaks as possible just so she can channel it all into her music (a complaint that many detractors have levied against Taylor Swift). Instead, Michaelson is like pop music’s “girl next door.” She’s pretty without her looks ever becoming the big selling point for her music, and she seems as friendly and genuine as any independent artist, even though she’s making the big bucks and selling out venues left and right.

Needless to say, it’s a pretty great time to be Ingrid Michaelson right now, and what better way to celebrate than with the most eclectic, versatile, and enjoyable album of her career? After 2012’s Human Again, a relatively downbeat and moody affair that released in the winter for obvious reasons, Michaelson lost her voice and took some time off to recover. Whatever the issue was, it’s banished entirely here, as Michaelson’s voice has never sounded more full of feeling and soul. Just like John Mayer, another pop songwriter who lost his voice for a period of time a few years back, Michaelson follows up the setback with her most adventurous album to date on Lights Out. Weightless opener “Home” is a red herring, a whitewashed piece of indie pop that hides a louder and more bombastic set of pop songs behind its curtain. In actuality, Lights Out is Michaelson’s spitball album, the record where she’s decided to throw her every influence and musical whim haphazardly at the canvas and not worry too much about smoothing the whole thing over. It’s a good choice, and it frequently yields the most vibrant and vital material that Michaelson has ever written or performed.

As is evident from the earworm first single “Girls Chase Boys,” this record is an absolute summer pop affair, and it’s fittingly the biggest pop moments that ring the truest here. Case in point is the sun-kissed “You Got Me,” a luxuriantly euphoric duet with an unknown Colin Meloy sound-alike who calls himself Storyman. The tune feels destined for a rom com montage of beach scenes and handheld downtown wanderings, a fact that might paint it as clichĂ© for some listeners. But Michaelson sounds so good when blending with virtually any male vocalist that the song ends up being downright irresistible. The same goes for “One Night Town,” a booming duet with pop-folk crooner Mat Kearney that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the singer’s own spitball album, 2012’s beat-heavy Young Love.

In fact, Michaelson seems to willfully acknowledge on Lights Out that she sounds best when dueting with vocalists of the opposite sex. She of course shares a track with husband and frequent collaborator Greg Laswell, who lends a wisp of his full-bodied baritone to the luminescent Sunday afternoon slowburn of “Wonderful Unknown.” She also finds room to do two back-to-back tracks with Trent Dabbs (on the rather interchangeable “Open Hands” and “Ready to Lose”), as well as a penultimate piano ballad with A Great Big World (big right now for their recent hit “Say Something,” which featured Christina Aguilera). The latter song, a sparse emotional number called “Over You” feels like little more than a “Say Something” retread at first, but Michaelson plays heartbroken vulnerability better than Aguilera ever has, and “Over You” surges as a result. Michaelson’s voice perfectly compliments the voices of the guys from A Great Big World, and the climax of the tune, where all three singers repeat the same lines in a round, is an absolute album highlight.

While guest features are a common fixture on hip-hop records, they often don’t work as well on straightforward pop releases because they draw focus away from the project's core creator and disable the cohesion of the record as a whole. Surprisingly, the opposite is true on Lights Out, with the guest stars adding an unpredictable quality of eclecticism without ever betraying the overall mood of the album. More surprisingly, it’s Michaelson’s solo songs that actually bring about the scattershot inconsistency that is so often a hallmark of spitball albums like this one. The dark and atmospheric “Handsome Hands” is the worst offender, a dark and evocative tune that sounds like it would have been more at home on the last Florence + The Machine album than it is here. Soulful rave-ups like “Warpath” and “Time Machine” fit a bit better, but aren’t highlights. The former is solid, a hand-clap driven foot-tapper that would make Adele proud, while the latter is more generic fare, a brassy Bond-style rocker that would probably sound better if this album weren’t already a bit overlong at 14 songs and 55 minutes.

That’s not to say that Michaelson’s solo songs are all lesser moments, though. The sweeping “Afterlife” is arguably the best and most immediate song the singer has ever recorded, boasting an unwavering beat and a rousing chorus made for cathartic shout-alongs. “We’re gonna live tonight like there’s no tomorrow, ‘cause we’re the afterlife,” Michaelson belts on the hook, which builds in volume and force with each consecutive repetition. It’s her “We Are Young,” her “Born to Run,” a song about going for broke, leaving it all on the table, and living life to the fullest, and by the time gang vocals join the mix for the final chorus, it’s firmly established itself as an anthem. “Afterlife” should be the album’s closing track (it gets the third-to-last slot instead), but it’s difficult to imagine the song not serving as the main set finale on Michaelson's upcoming tour.

Luckily, the song that does get to close the album, a delicate and downbeat number called “Everyone is Gonna Love Me Now,” does a nice enough job of tying all of the album's threads together. Starting like a Sara Bareilles piano ballad (“Gravity” comes to mind instantly) and building in a steady and sustained crescendo to the wordless “woah oh” refrain that serves as the song’s climax, "Everyone is Gonna Love Me Now" is a fitting end to an album that will probably only reinforce Michaelson’s position as the most likable pop singer/songwriter in the business right now. Someday in the near future, I bet she will make an album that can balance its disparate influences and lofty ambitions in a more cohesive manner, but for now, Lights Out is a more-than-satisfactory entry in the singer's solid discography, and easily one of the best pop albums of the year so far.

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