Julia Michaels: Not in Chronological Order review | Alexis Petridis’s album of the week

The world of the songwriter for hire is filled with ex-performers: former pop stars, indie rockers and – in the case of Max Martin – glam metal frontmen who slipped gratefully into the background when success, or their desire to be in the spotlight, faded. The sheer number of them suggests it’s a relatively straightforward transition to make. But there’s a distinct lack of traffic in the opposite direction, suggesting the journey from the backroom to the centre of attention is more vexing.

The career of Julia Michaels is a case in point. In 2017, she looked remarkably like a pop phenomenon in waiting, having served an extraordinary apprenticeship as a songwriter for hire. By the age of 24, she had co-authored 10 platinum singles – among them Justin Bieber’s 10m-selling Sorry, Ed Sheeran’s Dive and a string of hits for Selena Gomez – establishing herself as the kind of writer who could flit with ease between teen pop artists, R&B singers, country stars, dance producers requiring a vocal melody and even metal bands whose material needed a polish: she is the thread that improbably links Rita Ora to Linkin Park.

Julia Michaels: Not in Chronological Order album cover.

Her debut single as an artist, Issues, was another vast success: over a billion streams on Spotify alone. She had a distinctive voice – husky, with a tendency to slur her words that lent a certain nonchalant, conversational air to her soul-baring lyrics – and a succession of high-profile appearances as guest vocalist on other artists’ singles, not least Clean Bandit’s I Miss You. There were equally high-profile support slots on tours by Shawn Mendes, Maroon 5 and former One Direction star Niall Horan.

She released a couple more singles and a handful of EPs, and had another big streaming hit by co-writing and duetting on JP Saxe’s If the World Was Ending, nominated for song of the year at the 2021 Grammys. But she’s mostly retreated again to a background role, co-writing more hits for Gomez, a track on Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and a sizeable chunk of Demi Lovato’s recently released comeback album. Apparently, she preferred it that way: she had stage fright, compounded by the way Issues fast-tracked her into stadium gigs and awards shows.

That said, Michaels doesn’t look or sound much like a wallflower on All Your Exes, one of the tracks plucked from her belated debut album in advance of its release. The video features Michaels as a serial killer, bloodily offing a succession of her partner’s former girlfriends with a baseball bat and a chainsaw. “You tell me not to worry, I’m the only thing you see,” she sings. “Well, yeah – I fucking better be.” The chorus is nailed-on, the sound a more streamlined, glossy, LA take on the sort of pop-grunge revivalism found on Beabadoobee’s debut album, suggesting that Michaels’ solo niche might be as a kind of Alanis Morissette for the Snapchat generation.

But that’s not the way the rest of Not in Chronological Order pans out. It’s certainly got a lot in the way of neurotic lyrical self-examination, but sets it in a selection box of currently fashionable pop styles: a bit of smooth 80s AOR here (Pessimist), a touch of piano balladry there (Little Did I Know), a whisper of late 80s alt-rock about the guitars (Orange Magic), a substantial dose of tastefully done dance pop (Lie Like This, Undertone). The gently fingerpicked History – “do you cry when movies hit home? / Have you ever had an existential crisis?” – meanwhile, is precisely the kind of delicate melancholia that TikTok users seem to find irresistible: it sounds like it’s waiting to soundtrack a 15-second video of autumn leaves, sunsets, old school photos, etc.

The songs are melodically bulletproof, as you might expect, given Michaels’ pedigree, and the grab-bag of styles is well handled. Undertone is a particularly good example of type, propelled not by a four-to-the-floor bass thud but an impressively urgent breakbeat. The issue is that they’re examples of type. Michaels is a strong songwriter who has a way with a wordy lyric as well as a melody line – “The summer before you I thought love was Shakespearean / More or less a painful experience,” opens Little Did I Know – but there isn’t enough about Not in Chronological Order to set it apart, other than some slurred consonants. Its USP is supposed to be Michaels’ painful honesty – these are songs she felt were too personal to give to others – but we’re living in an era where painful honesty isn’t a USP: you currently can’t move for pop stars tugging at your sleeve and telling you about their problems.

The lack of distinguishing features might be a side-effect of life as a songwriter for hire – a world in which you necessarily have to subjugate your own personality so whoever records your song has room to imprint their own on it. It’s a perfectly enjoyable debut and a showcase for Michaels’ talent, but it doesn’t sound like the debut of an undeniable star. Given her past experience, perhaps that’s exactly what its author wanted.

This week Alexis listened to

Yola: Diamond Studded Shoes
First taste from Bristol singer’s new album: impeccably-done, joy-bringing country-soul, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.

Checkout latest world news below links :
World News || Latest News || U.S. News

Source link

Back to top button
SoundCloud To Mp3