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Maggie Rogers - Heard It in a Past Life Music Album Reviews

Three years after an encounter with Pharrell turned her into a viral phenomenon, the accidental star finally delivers her debut album, but her talents are eclipsed by overproduction.

It is tempting to imagine Maggie Rogers’ career rollout had she not found viral fame from Pharrell’s patronage: the narrative she might have chosen, the songs she could have deployed to establish her aesthetic. This student at the Clive Davis Institute had just started incorporating electronica into her folky songwriting when the visiting producer poured lavish praise on her class project, “Alaska.” It is ironic that a song about a recent personal reclamation (“And I walked off you/And I walked off an old me”) led to a renewed loss of control in Rogers’ life, one that she has likened to a violation, or, in the naturalistic songwriting she prefers, a bout of freak weather.

But how different, really, is Rogers’ ascent from that of any other nascent pop star? A new artist finds traction thanks to a song landing on a Spotify playlist or a celebrity boosting it on Instagram. A game of Battleship ensues as the label triangulates a semblance of strategy around anticipating fickle public tastes. If the shots miss, they try different directions, producers, collaborators. When enough land, an album might appear. Poleaxed by the attention and the demand to produce more music as quickly as possible, Rogers released a hesitant EP but then resisted immediately capitalizing with an album, craving time to figure out what she wanted to say. Understandably, a good part of Heard It in a Past Life is about the crisis induced by losing control, its intimate electronic production tasked with keeping her earthbound. Rogers taking her time seems like a rebuke to the cheapness associated with viral success, though the result melts easily into the algorithmic slipstream.

It’s easy to hear what Pharrell heard in “Alaska.” Rogers has a classic case of consonant-averse indie voice, meaning it’s often hard to decipher the words, but still, the falsetto-layered chorus has a lightheaded euphoria that makes her feeling of freedom plain. She co-produced the song—apparently in 15 minutes—and her production, however self-consciously whimsical (there’s a mourning dove in there somewhere), charmed like fireflies at dusk. Considering this student’s idiosyncratic work left one of the most successful producers in pop history speechless, the sight of so many big-ticket pop aides on Heard It in a Past Life’s credits is depressing: It feels symptomatic of the fate of young female pop producers not to be trusted with their own voices. I would bet cash that if Pharrell had bestowed approval on a male student, his would be the only name on the credits.

Whether it’s down to Greg Kurstin, Rostam and Kid Harpoon, or Rogers’ own intentions, her major-label debut is overproduced. Teeming with cicada hiss, beats as tacky as an army of tongues, synths that reverberate like a pigeon cooing down an exhaust pipe, bell-like resonance, and wan R&B runs, it suggests a more sylvan Sylvan Esso, Haim if they’d grown up in Portland, the last traces of residue from a decade of Bitte Orca.

It’s also melodically indistinct. Songs often hew to similar structures: somber, one- or two-note verses with the emphasis landing at the end of each line, followed by a bolder, boilerplate chorus. The bright, polysyllabic incantation of “Give a Little” has the homespun quirk of a song from a decade-old iPod advert. A tribute to Rogers’ fans, “Light On” feels written to inhabit a rousing spot towards the end of a setlist (and is no “Remember My Name”). “Burning” sparks on the kind of vocal exhortations that Florence Welch uses to rally her players into battle. The innate elegance of “Alaska” is a bug crushed under heel.

While often precious, it’s never bad or incompetent, but there’s a frustrating sense of bets being hedged, particularly once the more ambitious production gives way to mildly anguished stadium boom towards the end. There are some misses: Piano ballad “Past Life” feels like a stab at “Writer in the Dark,” right down to arriving at the album’s halfway point, though it lacks the brazen weirdness that made Lorde’s song so sublime. The opening notes are also heavily reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” though the clunky, folksy repetition of “I could feel the change a-coming” smothers the potential for rueful mysticism à la Stevie.

Rogers actually invokes Nicks on “Retrograde,” an angsty, chugging song about reconciling her past and present that references a line from the title track of Nicks’ 1981 solo debut, Bella Donna. Nicks wrote the song to warn herself to slow down following six years in the biggest band in the world, copious substance abuse, a tumultuous relationship with an autodidact who once kicked her on stage, and a tour of Europe in what transpired to be Hitler’s old train. It puts the stresses of having an indie-pop hit into perspective.

But, to give Rogers credit, those are the moments she communicates most effectively: running around the block twice in Paris to clear her head and convince herself not to run away (“Back in My Body”); being “drenched in madness, tangled blues” (“On + Off”). Maybe it’s something she always had, but perhaps having her life exploded in three minutes and nine seconds has given her an acute sense for the alchemy of transformation. Precise instances of clarity, infatuation, and confusion abound, yet the underdeveloped writing offers mostly exposition instead of the potential for Robyn-like communal revelations.

She is capable of them: Watch her heart-punching performance of “Fallingwater” on “SNL,” which she tackles with a hunter’s bloodlust that puts the album’s benign Spotifycore-friendly version in the shade. Rogers’ voice is often stubborn and serious on record, refusing to give up the expected drama. It’s a compelling refusal in some respects, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying, especially when you know what she is capable of. While Rogers has criticized the Pharrell narrative as “so fucking dainty,” that restraint preserves her as the meek deer in the headlights, the girl who got lucky, not the ambitious auteur ready to set her own fate.

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