Saturday, January 19, 2019

Review: Heard It in a Past Life • Maggie Rogers

Long before an unfinished take of "Alaska" grabbed her beneath the arms and unexpectedly lifted her to fame, Maggie Rogers was already well ingrained in the buzzing community of online musicians. By the time Pharrell Williams had heard those teardrop beats and waterfall harmonies in the back half of 2016, Rogers' resume included props from a Berklee songwriting summer camp, a New York University education, and two independent folk records. She had worked through a lifetime's worth of preparation when she gave her maiden performances on the Saturday Night Live stage last fall, two years removed from her breakthrough viral moment. As she came to a close with the final high notes of "Fallingwater" that night, she finally stood still in her sea of flowing red fabric. Her face retreated to disbelief. She had finally made it. On her own.

Rogers' songwriting and voice find their basis in folk music. Her voice is textured but not showy, and every song on her major label debut record, Heard It in a Past Life, could hold similar strength if performed with a guitar at an open mic night. (This acoustic performance of “Light On” will prove just that.) And although this record infuses a pop sensibility and invites Greg Kurstin, Kid Harpoon, Rostam Batmanglij, and Ricky Reed to co-produce tracks with Rogers, Heard It in a Past Life doesn’t particularly acknowledge its elevated status. It listens like a product somewhat as humble as the independent Bandcamp releases that Rogers recorded in a broom closet – and with its organic heartbeat and acoustic instrumentation, it definitely does not listen like the typical major label pop record.

Kurstin and Reed lend some energetic beats to Rogers’ craft, which is now accompanied by deeper and richer sounds across the record but is fundamentally unchanged from her earlier work. And spare perhaps the disjointed beat on opening track "Give A Little” and the tinny clicks on “Say It,” the production on the tracks is not even half as clean-cut as, for example, what Kurstin has crafted for pop titans like Sia and Chvrches. His full-bodied European dance club beats do not impede on this record's intrinsically saturated palette; rather, they're softened with Rogers’ rich vocals, like when the spurts of vowels are added beneath the neo-funk groove of "The Knife," and twists of natural elements, such as the sound samples of frogs and glaciers that make up the synth lines in "Overnight."

Rogers' most powerful cuts are the ones that don’t drive folks to the dance floor, perhaps because she has what people of an older generation would call an 'old soul' – a typical Baby Boomer's description for the exception to their general rule of distaste for Millennials. Her mild-mannered attitude and appreciation for legacy forms of music production culminate in the record’s greatest moments. The stonewashed "Fallingwater," the record’s most captivating track with gritty undertones and a silky smooth surface, washes over listeners and pulls them into its current, especially when she cuts the tempo after the bridge and layers up on vocals. And "Light On," the single that has found a home on the adult contemporary charts, cracks itself open at the chorus and radiates like a sunrise over the horizon of an empty highway. 

As her one-take piano ballad "Past Life" and triumphant closer "Back in My Body" prove, Rogers starts with solid songwriting first. Upon that, the glitzy nuances of Heard It in a Past Life are built. Most often, she gives us enough to dance, but enough to think. The record tells a semi-cohesive story of becoming a celebrity without warning and maintaining normalcy while growing into the lifestyle. There's plenty about love and understanding, about having fun and finding inner peace. But it isn't until "Back in My Body" when the whirlwind of the post-"Alaska" years, both a blessing and a curse, dampens to a calm breeze again: "I found myself when I was going everywhere. This time, I know I’m fighting. This time, I know I’m back in my body," she sings, snuffing out any last flames of chaos.

Though it is the leading touchstone of every written piece about her, including this one, her unexpected thrust to fame courtesy of that Pharrell Williams co-signature is arguably the least interesting thing about her. Rogers knows her way around a song, and for that matter, the industry. She wrote her own business plan and contract with Capitol Records, and she co-produced this record alongside the team of big names. And despite the fact that "Alaska," now sounding quaint and strangely underdeveloped among the other tracks here, appears on the record to remind us all how we first heard of Maggie Rogers, Heard It in a Past Life is largely the composition of Rogers' legacy within her own time frame and on her own terms: An imperfect legacy of evolution as she continuously readjusts her center through self-awareness.

Heard It In a Past Life is available now under Capitol Records and Debay Sounds.

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