Michaelson Returns With Sophistication and Finesse

Ingrid Michaelson -- Human Again -- Cabin 24 -- 4 STARS

Although Ingrid Michaelson’s latest album “Human Again” has many break-up songs, it is not a break-up album. It’s more like a break-down-and-get-back-up album. While Michaelson  skyrocketed to fame riding mostly on whimsical romantic ballads like “The Way I Am”, “You and I,” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” “Human Again” introduces Michaelson’s more serious and musically mature side. In fifteen tracks, “Human Again” weaves together a fluid and engaging meditation on lost love, resilience, and inner strength. Michaelson is back, this album says—and she’s tougher than expected.

Through her witty wordplay and catchy melodies, Michaelson carved a place for her work in the already established singer-songwriter folk-pop musical niche alongside artists like Laura Marling, Imogen Heap, and Inara George. After making her debut in 2007 with the album “Girls and Boys,” she gained recognition when several of her songs were featured on popular television shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “One Tree Hill.” “Human Again” is produced by David Kahne, who has formerly worked with artists Regina Spektor and Paul McCartney— artists who, like Michaelson, are known for their distinctive songwriting.

Michaelson’s fifth studio album reflects her growth as a musician but does not stray too far from her musical roots. While “Keep Warm” and “Always You” most closely resemble her famous romantic songs, there’s a newfound sense of gravity in her craft; her voice roams the spectrum from faint and withering to insistent and resonant. Often arranged before a backdrop of soaring strings, Michaelson’s vocal wanderings channel the sound of an older jazz era. There is also more instrumental complexity in this album, especially in the songs “Do It Now,” and “Palm of Your Hand.” Compared to the coffee-shop sensibility of Michaelson’s earlier releases, “Human Again” is a much grander affair.

“Human Again” cycles between two emotional chords. At times, it is upbeat and defiant, with a foot-tapping snappiness produced by the interplay of snare drum, bouncing guitar strumming, and buoyant piano. At other points, Michaelson’s singing takes on a darker, more mournful cast, channeling the raw emotions of heartbreak.  Occasionally the album veers into whispery inertia, but rather than detracting from the whole, such slower tracks like “Always You” function as intimate confessions that leave room for the listener’s thoughts to wander. This is contemplative music, fit for long drives, rainy days, and the small hours of the morning.

That being said, Michaelson has not lost her trademark pep in these records. Though she may reach for more serious notes, she refuses to sound defeated. In “This is War” she insists, “I won’t surrender, I will fight better / You lock me out and knock me down / But I will find my way around.” While Michaelson does make use of cliché, making  references to the rain, the stars, and love that “fills up the room,” she puts her own lyrical spin on these trite images. “We’re all the same under a different name / We’re all blood, we’re all blood, blood brothers,” she proclaims in the track “Blood Brothers,” a hint at the universality of human emotions. The song “Do It Now”—a low-key rallying cry for those who are discouraged and down on their luck—tells listeners, “Don’t waste a minute on the darkness and the pity sitting in your mind.”

Fire,” one of the high points of the album, is an ideal treadmill track due to its urgent beat and creative use of repetition. In this song, Michaelson shows a high level of control over her vocals, hitting notes all throughout her vocal range as she switches from soft to insistent. “Ghost” is another track destined for the radio; though it does not stray from  the conventions of a modern pop song, it incorporates Michaelson’s unique lyrical flair.

Some may claim that “Human Again” is predictable in its lyrical content and song structure.  While it does not revolutionize the genre, the album plays to Michaelson’s strengths and showcases a sophisticated, richer sound. Although she primarily works with two contrasting moods on this album, she conveys both of them poignantly.

—Staff writer Ola Topczewska can be reached at atopczewska@college.harvard.edu.

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