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.
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.
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