Album review: Ingrid Michaelson sweeps through heartbreak on ‘Human Again’
With her lilting voice and nerdy, girl-next-door looks, Ingrid Michaelson has charmed an audience and built a career around her good-girl appeal.
But that’s not to say there’s no substance behind her style. Michaelson’s career is both an indie success story and a commentary on the current nature of the music business. In an environment where it is easier than ever to make music, where everyone has a website and a YouTube channel, it can be, rather ironically, harder and harder for musicians to get their songs heard. Commercial radio is simply not as much of a factor in introducing new artists, and musicians must pursue other avenues to reach an audience.
Michaelson first got attention for song placement in television shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” and later by licensing her songs for TV commercials. Once upon a time, an artist that sold a song for commercial use was considered a sellout. (Remember when Neil Young declared that he wasn’t singing for Pepsi or Coke?) Today it’s the opposite. An artist can have a song on TV before a single on the radio. For Michaelson, “selling out” was the stepping stone to the audience she has now. When Old Navy picked up “The Way I Am” (from her 2006 record “Girls and Boys”) it helped pave the way for her career.
With her clever, literate lyrics and sometimes quirky, well-crafted pop songs, perhaps Michaelson’s success was inevitable. I never watched “Grey’s Anatomy” or saw those commercials. I came to appreciate her the old-fashioned way: by falling in love with her voice (and, to be honest, her looks). It may have been her persona that first got my attention, but I stayed for her songs.
On her new record, “Human Again,” Michaelson delivers more of the deeply textured arrangements and soaring vocals that are her trademark. And while she has always sung about both love and loss, this time around the emphasis centers more squarely upon the loss. “Human Again” is clearly Michaelson’s take on the classic break-up album.
As if there were any question, the record opens with “Fire” as she sings, “Open heart surgery/That is what you do to me.” She then moves right into “This Is War,” another heartbreaker featuring the lines “It’s a wonder at all that I survived the war/Between your heart and mine.” Thankfully, the third track delivers a bit of a respite with the upbeat tune, “Do It Now,” a catchy number and an admonition to seize the day.
“I’m Through,” however, may be the saddest song on the album, literally aching as she goes out to dinner with a new suitor. But her mind is in the past; clearly she is not through with heartache, not yet. At times such sadness can be a bit too precious, as on the first single, “Ghost,” complete with a video featuring lyrics written on her arms and body. It’s all a little much, even if play counts are sure to rise in the lonely hearts club of her fan base.
The sound of the album sharpens the focus. The driving string section that opens the record lets the listener know she means business: She’s not taking heartbreak lightly. Sweeping strings color several of the songs, notably album closer “End of the World.” Her ukulele appears as well, although this time around it’s not on a bouncy pop tune; it’s juxtaposed against the darker lyrics of “This is War.” But for all of her musical complexity, Michaelson is also keenly aware of how a sparse, acoustic guitar part will serve a song just as well, as on “Ribbons” and “How We Love.”
It’s not entirely doom and gloom here, although her lovesickness is most convincing when it’s a bit more wistful than bleak. “How We Love” is a perfect example as she sings, “We hate the rain when it fills up our shoes/But how we love when it washes our cars/We love to love when it fills up the room/But when it leaves, oh, we’re cursing the stars.” The song is a deft character sketch of a lovelorn man and his missed opportunities. There are almost no happy endings here, and yet, for all the loss and heartbreak, for all the battles of the heart, the album closes, almost hopefully, with the poignant and beautiful “End of the World” as Michaelson sings, “At the end of, at the end of the world/Will you find me?/So that we can go together.”
These are strong songs, nevertheless, and “Human Again” is a fine release from a vibrant, still-growing artist. A few questions remain: Will fans accustomed to the upbeat Ingrid be put off by the heart in-her-hands Ingrid? Or will they stand by her until she fully finds her quirky self again?