Expanding on the folk-pop songs that eased her in, Maggie Rogers' debut is an excellent collage on the importance of a singular vision.
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You may have heard this story before yet it is unlike any other, playing out like an episode of Ellen where no-one expected the outcome. In June 2016, several students at New York University Tisch School of the Arts attended a masterclass hosted by Pharrell. As one does. Each student was offered the opportunity to present a song of their own to the Neptune. One student sat quietly, keeping her head low as her song was heard by one of the most praised producers of our time. That song was ‘Alaska’. That student was Maggie Rogers.
Pharrell cried, and the rest is history – well technically it is the present. Signed to the label behind The Beatles, Rogers’ major-label debut has arrived, and it proves that so has she. ‘Heard It in a Past Life’ is an extremely charismatic and likable, only slightly flawed, album that firmly prints Rogers’ name on the ground. Across the forty-five minutes, ‘…Past Life’ affirms her credentials as a multi-talented songwriter and producer, and one worth supporting.
The signs were there. Sure, the appeal of a hip-hop mogul shedding tears about a folk-pop song is unshakeable, but so is that song – the catalyst behind the viral sensation. And so it comes as no surprise that the first album since the Maggie Rogers breakthrough only further establishes the strength in her songwriting. ‘Heard It’ is a tight product determined to linger and outlive prospects of wandering into the forest of pop flops.
If ‘Alaska’ is all you knew going in, ‘Give A Little’ turns the tables smoother than a Lazy Susan. The former carries a breezy shimmer of a melody. The latter kicks off the album with a thump – crashing through the gates with a pummeling drum. It is a HAIM-esque uplifting track, with a bass line to savour and one of the strongest vocal performances on the album. The harmonised vocals and hand claps give a largely electronic song a human element. As an album opener, it is a winner. The instrumental section is unnecessary but well-executed for a chart-pop song. To have a breakdown on the first song on your major debut could be risky where every second counts. However that instrumental is simply too catchy to skip.
From there the album refuses to concede to cliche. ‘The Knife’ is a chest-forward techno number about nightlife (“Beautiful how it all pours out, After dark, after light“). It plays out like a song Lorde wrote for ‘Melodrama’ but sacrificed it for ‘Homemade Dynamite’ (coincidentally the third track). Still, a Lorde-like song is always welcome. The combination of the instrumentation build and Rogers’ voice blooming is a sign of her craft.
Elsewhere ‘Overnight’ is a Greg Kurstin-produced gem, another case of a killer pre-chorus. ‘Burning”s production blows the song out of the water. As the album’s penultimate song, it is the one that may stay with you the longest. It is the strongest case for Maggie Rogers as an intelligent writer. With an instrumental that Chvrches so badly craved last year, and a chorus destined for the stage, it soars above the rest.
The production is stellar throughout. ‘Say It’ opens side B with an entrancing vocal lead – not too dissimilar to New Yorkers Wet – before exploding into an instrumental prime for remixes. It is a trendy, if not heard-it-before, track with a whiff of early Emeli Sande. ‘Retrograde’ flexes her strengths – powerful vocals upon kinetic beats. It is Maggie Rogers at her most vocally vulnerable, as well as a stand-out in the album’s tail-end.
It is hard to be picky about a pop album so assured, but there are some flaws. Primarily the album’s biggest weakness is coincidentally the success of her strengths. ‘Alaska’, for all of its career-building legacy, is wildly out of place. Following three spry and wonderfully bubbly electro anthems, ‘Alaska’ severely undercuts what came before. It is undeniably sweet, with its glistening production and Ice Age-esque journey, but it tonally undermines the persona Rogers adopts previously.
‘Alaska’ does the album a disservice. As evidenced on ‘Heard It in a Past Life’, she is over that early vulnerability and shyness that the song’s instrumentation plays out. Throughout the record, the songwriting is adventurous that the single’s dizzying soprano feels out of place. As for ‘On + Off’, it does not justify its presence, despite how typically great the chorus is. On the other hand, the syllabic shift on the second verse is a sumptuous swerve. ‘Alaska’ and ‘On + Off both appeared on an EP nearly 2 years ago. The two songs’ reappearance are brand recognition if nothing else.
It is a small critique for what is ultimately a very versatile album. ‘Past Life’ is your token ballad. It is utilised here not to force diversity, but to highlight Maggie Rogers’ range. The Stevie Nicks impersonation is dead-on, by the way. It is the only song solely written and produced by Rogers, enforcing how much influence she has in the writing process. As for the closer of side A, it is a worthy round-up. It does not feel final, but is spacious enough to cool you down before you swap vinyl sides (a nod, no doubt, to acts like Fleetwood Mac).
‘Heard It in a Past Life’ is a very fitting title. Maggie Rogers is a welcome addition to the scene, acknowledging the acts before her (old and new) to forge new territory. She co-wrote every song on this record and was executive producer, ensuring this album is very much from her. This record is an easy sell; her vision is clear and the songs stride with maturity. Her contribution to the scene is great; she will not threaten any other acts – she is individual enough to create new worlds. The songs are vivid, eyes-wide-open tales served with the most composed production. After listening to it, you will see what Pharrell saw. Maggie Rogers is here to stay.
‘Heard It in a Past Life’ by Maggie Rogers is out on 18th January via Capitol Records