Review Summary: You and me we got this, you and me we're beautiful
Last week I came across a Newsweek
interview of Ingrid Michaelson from 2009 in which she candidly expressed, “I get by, I fool people….they think I’m a lot better than I am.” She then admits that while she can produce some basic chords for the piano, ukulele, and guitar – she’s actually “not that good” at any of them. Ingrid has always been the kind of down-to-earth, self-sufficient songwriter that is well aware of her flaws and has never allowed them to become weaknesses. Perhaps it is the honesty that she upholds with herself that has allowed her to perfect her craft. Even if she is - by her own admission - an average musician, then her humble vision and creativity has allowed her to grow into a phenomenal artist. After all, she is anything but “not that good”, with her meek Myspace beginnings launching a critically acclaimed indie-songwriting career.
In a way, Lights Out
harkens back to Michaelson’s philosophy during that old interview. It’s a very humble record, from start to finish. She abandons the string-tethered frills of Human Again
, returning to the piano-laden roots of her past. One doesn’t need to look beyond ‘Beautiful Unknown’ to hear the resurgence of Ingrid’s wistful balladry, featuring a simple percussion-driven rhythm that is underscored by atmospheric classical piano notes. Her limber vocals wrap themselves around each note, progressing naturally within the song’s tempo to create the record’s standout “gem.” It’s the kind of lush ballad that you would imagine two people dancing to in an empty ballroom – with lyrics like “In the best way…you’ll be the death of me”, it is vacant yet so clearly full of hope. Michaelson is able to express so many emotions in this song, even though she doesn’t venture outside of a few basic chords…proving, once again, that humility with a clear vision triumphs over lofty aspirations with bare substance.
On Lights Out
, Ingrid has several swings at the ballad plate. There are certainly a few noticeable misses (such as the overwrought ‘Ready to Lose’), but the occasional home runs are more than enough to offset those moments. One such example is the tremendous buildup present in ‘Handsome Hands’, from the eerily sung beginning to the pandemonium that it becomes- complete with crashing cymbals, French horns, and even a trumpet. Right before the chaos commences, Michaelson wails, “When the fallout comes we know the show must go…please just give to me your handsome hands, then I really won’t care where my body lands.” It’s classic Ingrid, pairing haunting lyrics with poignant music in a way that is incredibly memorable. She does enough of this to make Lights Out
– a record deeply rooted in slower, romantically-inclined tunes – a rather unforgettable experience.
The successful upbeat tracks that have eluded Ingrid Michaelson’s career (save perhaps ‘Parachute’) strike on a pair of occasions this time. ‘Girls Chase Boys’ and ‘Afterlife’ fall outside the category of “whimsical ballad”, and both of them are excellent. The first is a vibrantly repetitive single with a chorus that will lodge itself in your memory for weeks. ‘Afterlife’ is a triumphant ode to tomorrow, defying thoughts of depression with triumphant shouts of “We’re gonna live tonight like there’s no tomorrow” and “You and me we got this, you and me we’re beautiful.” Moments like these are too few and far between to call Lights Out
a balanced record. In fact, a better ratio of up-tempo songs to all of the slow, thoughtful and poetic ones would work miracles on any future Ingrid Michaelson record. But as it stands, this is still a humble work – one that remains true to Michaelson and the vision that she has for her music.
While I would be hesitant to apply any number of clichéd tags to this album - such as “a return to form” or “a cumulative resume of her previous works” – there does
exist a certain sense of nostalgia that defines Lights Out
as more of a “safe” record and less of a boundary-tester. However, that in no way means that Ingrid Michaelson is regressing. Even though Human Again
had its fair share of supporters, it still felt as though Ingrid’s music was getting too big for its britches – attaching grandiose strings, orchestras, and all other kinds of fanfare to music that was, at its heart, very simple. This record is Michaelson coming to that realization, and directing her ambition towards heartfelt lyrics and instrumental moments of subtlety. If Ingrid Michaelson continues to focus on her strengths and refine her art, then we’ll all still be listening to her twenty-five years from now, marveling over how a self-proclaimed “not that good” artist made music that is this