BLIND TASTE TEST: Maggie Rogers – Heard It In A Past Life

I was really surprised to hear that you still hadn’t gotten around to listening to Maggie Rogers, an artist who seems to be tailor made to your tastes Fran. A little folk, a little alternative, a bit dreamy, a bit early evening festival set, but all around an impressive debut album. I was aware of Maggie and was a big fan of her debut EP and early singles, the most notable being ‘Alaska’ that’s full of layered production and a unique vocal arrangement. That song in particular gained traction online after a video of Maggie playing Pharrell the song in college went viral.

It wasn’t until I saw her perform live that I was fully sold though. In a support slot for HAIM I was blown away by her command of the stage, reminiscent of Florence Welch in the way she delivered these ethereal and energetic songs. ‘Retrograde’, ‘Give A Little’, and ‘Burning’ are pulsing pop anthems, while ‘Light On’ and ‘Falling Water’ feel more rooted in folky rock than anything else. It’s a huge sounding album at times, but brought down to earth by a rootsy performance from Rogers.

I do think you’ll enjoy some of if not most of this record, especially going into songs like ‘Alaska’ and ‘On + Off’ completely blind.

Sam.

 

So, Sam, I have to admit that, after reading your introduction, I am now a little bit worried that our near perfect run of Blind Taste Test Success might be coming to an end. But maybe I’m jumping the gun. That fear comes, though, from your mention of that Pharrell video.

I remember seeing it – I think everyone remembers seeing it – and personally being totally turned off by the whole spectacle. It felt so manufactured that I ended up expecting a certain sound from the artist and never bothered to follow anything further about the whole thing.

That said, I had never connected that video and the name Maggie Rogers in my head. So who knows? I have paid attention to a copy of slow, acoustic songs by Rogers that randomly have popped up on my YouTube and they have had me intrigued if not totally sold.

I’ll go into this with an open mind:

The opening tones of ‘Give A Little’ are enough to make me fear that I might be right in my doubts. She clearly has a strong voice, but there’s a tone that I’m really not gelling with at all in this one. It’s far too chirpy. I’m not totally sure what else is holding me back, but it definitely doesn’t feel like something I can get too close to. I think the idea I had of Maggie Rogers was someone who would deliver something more paired back, more inviting, so maybe my initial issue is that this is far from what I was expecting. But we’ll see how we go. It’s only track one.

I’m not getting an awful lot from ‘Overnight’ either, though. Two songs in I’m actually finding myself a little frustrated by her voice, noticing moments in which it promises to soar but feeling that it is otherwise a bit too clipped in its delivery and the moments when she bursts into life are a bit too over the top. If I focus on the music of this one there is more for me to enjoy than there was in ‘Give A Little’ – there’s a solid bit of percussion, for example. But otherwise I’m reminded of the likes of Leanne Rimes that I couldn’t get on with all those years ago.

There’s a superb bit of bass on ‘The Knife’. The opening fifty seconds or so have me on board for the first time in this album, and it is undoubtedly my favourite song so far. There is more measure in her vocal performance, too – less vocal gymnastics and more times when she lets her pure ability do the talking. It’s the closest I’ve come to enjoyment but it still isn’t quite my thing.

‘Alaska’ is the first song that you highlighted as one you thought I’d particularly enjoy, Sam. You got that right. It takes its foot of the pedal a little in comparison to the earlier songs, pairing a more minimal beat with a simpler and more focused vocal delivery. I could see this song growing on me over time, although it is still a million miles away from what I was hoping and expecting to get from this album.

I think that, by the time I get to ‘Light On’, I am starting to figure out pretty much exactly where I sit with this album. Maggie Rogers is clearly very good at what she does. Putting out songs that meld elements of pop, R&B, and Americana – and doing a very good job of it. I get why she is well loved. She certainly isn’t the manufactured and dull artist I was expecting when I first saw that Pharrell video. But she is also, on this album at least, an artist that leans too heavily into the pop dramatics and vocal gymnastics to ever really become someone I’ll spend much time listening to.

I’ve been dying to see what would happen if Maggie slowed it down and presented a piano or acoustic song and I get what I’ve been waiting for on ‘Past Life.’ Hmmm. Sometimes you should be careful what you wish for.

I was genuinely excited for this album, so it is with some disappointment that I have to say I am pretty much willing it to end by the time we reach ‘Say It.’ ‘On + Off’ was another that Sam picked out as a potential personal highlight for me, but I’m left with the same nonplussed feeling I’ve experienced throughout the majority of the album. It’s all just on the outside of my personal circle of tastes, pushing on the edges but never quite finding a way in.

‘Fallngwater’, though, actually does break through in a way that no other song does. The drama is lessened. The melody is smoother, the vocals more steady, the emotion more evident. The most successful song so far for me, and I even enjoy the percussive breakdown at around the 3 minute mark before a bit of an emotional crescendo towards the end.

Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the beginning of a late game comeback for Heard It In A Past Life. I’m left utterly unmoved by ‘Retrogade’, less than convinced by ‘Burning’ and its overblown choruses, and slightly sucked in by ‘Back In My Body’ before it starts to build to a stadium-rock-esque ending.

In the end, then, it is quite easy to say that this wasn’t the record for me. I won’t go back in. The main issues for me were the way Maggie uses her voice and an instrumentation that seemed a little inauthentic, leaning towards an aesthetic that left me a little cold. But I don’t come away from this album wondering how anyone could like it – I totally see the appeal and have no doubt that there was plenty of talent and ability on show. It’s just got too many elements that jar with my own personal tastes.

Words by Fran Slater.

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