Heard It In A Past Life (EMI)
(A version of this review appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum section.)
Maybe it is the tenor of the times, a period of extremes politically, socially and artistically, that being moderate just doesn’t wash at the moment. As even T. Swift, an artist whose confidence and sales would normally insulate her from merely human requirements, acknowledged late last year, you’ve got to commit.
What Maggie Rogers brings to the party is a background in folk/pop, a liking for R&B, and a leaning to intensity which could play well in piano ballads. And you can hear all three in the one place in Alaska, the song which broke her two years ago, with its loosely rolling keyboard rhythm track, flutey backing vocals and an almost terse lead voice.
Heard It In A Past Life, not a debut album but the first for a major label, finds Rogers neither here nor there, and the lack of commitment is a killer. I’m not talking about a commitment to one style or a sound, nor even pushing them to something new or fresh either: this blend was very 2018 and “new” is as overblown as it is overrated as a requirement.
But Rogers needed to make it sound as if she’s giving pop, in Light On and Fallingwater, a genuine burst of energy in the chorus, or bringing real sensuality to the R&B grooves of Say It and Overnight. She needed to add some drive to the electro rhythm of Retrograde and Burning, or the Caribbean flightiness of Give A Little, to make it feel like they weren’t just programmed from factory settings on the synth.
And while Past Life has simple power in its emotional core, Back In My Body drifts into teen movie soundtrack generalities, and the aptly named On And Off hovers between atmosphere and vigour when you want it to, yes, commit.
It would be easy to suggest the relative blandness of Heard It In A Past Life is down to the corporate hand hovering over Rogers now, but it could well be her own uncertainty about what kind of artist she wants to be.
Again, I don’t mean choosing to be a pop artist, a folkish singer/songwriter, or an R&B/electronic one – worth repeating here that those aren’t either/or choices in any case – because she has talent enough to have options, that is clear. It’s more a question of does she have the instinct to dig beyond the surface style, and the extra level of talent to push herself to get beyond the average?
Now is not the time to be anything but certain and all-in.