Review Summary: And we, take her the way she is.
Ingrid Michaelson is for better or worse the most reliable indie-pop songstress in the mainstream light. Her career-to-date has been filled with albums that deliver exactly what we’d expect: forlorn, heartfelt ballads of romance featuring her soothing voice over a blend of simple instrumentation that has ventured far from her ukulele days. Her last three efforts saw her really settle into this sweet spot; Human Again
teased an art-pop direction but never fully realized it, Lights Out
overflowed with delicate slow dances and Swiftisms (“in the best way, you’ll be the death of me”), and It Doesn’t Have to Make Sense
was her quietest and most lyrically-reliant record so far. That’s why Stranger Songs
seemed like such an intriguing possibility – the artwork features her upside down in a jeans jacket and her hair dyed blonde, the title suggests something a little more bizarre than your average indie-pop fare, and lead single ‘Missing You’ sounds like it could be played in clubs more easily than a coffee shop. The stage was set for Michaelson to migrate to new pastures, a move that would make sense after a decade of playing it comparatively safe.
However, just like how Human Again
teased a more highbrow approach to pop but essentially ended up being a retread, Stranger Songs
follows in its footsteps. The subtle suggestions of evolution are mostly fanfare; Ingrid’s bread and butter covers the majority of this not-so-strange experience, as Michaelson waxes poetic about romance (“It’s like the Fourth of July in your eyes”…“Here I go, again, falling in love with my best friend”), and usually atop beautiful piano cascades (‘Mother’) or midtempo studio electronics (‘Freak Show’). Michaelson still hits the mark dependably on gorgeous numbers like ‘Christmas Lights’, where the music is set to little more than her voice, but her biggest successes on this album only solidify that she has a limited number of modes – most of which have already been explored with more energy and creativity.
With that said, Stranger Songs
will absolutely deliver what Ingrid’s fans love most about her. It’s got the gorgeous piano ballads, the awe-struck/starry-eyed lyrics of romance and heartbreak, and a handful of token upbeat pop numbers to the tune of ‘Boys Chase Girls’ that remind listeners she can still craft a mean hook. It should come as no surprise that Michaelson continues to trek down this path; the only real wonder is why she continues to tease alternate directions that she’ll never fully commit to. There’s a vast spectrum of sounds out there that, with the current advancements in the music industry, could launch her gorgeous voice to places we never thought possible. Instead, we’re stuck in the mid-2000's. It’s not a bad place to be, and we’ll all undoubtedly still find plenty to enjoy here, but one can’t help but feel like the vast potential she showed back when she was actually a starving indie artist has fizzled out. Now she has a product
– this carefully curated image – as opposed to a vision she’s trying to chase. Longtime fans still holding out for a career-defining record from Michaelson will have to take her own lyrical advice from 2006: “take me the way I am.”