Halftime Leisure

Critical Voices: Ingrid Michaelson, Lights Out

April 17, 2014


In some ways, Ingrid Michaelson is like Nutella: sweet, addicting, and great in endless creative combinations. This has certainly proven to be the case in her latest release, Lights Out, in which the singer trades out her trademark indie style for a more polished, mainstream sound.

Unlike so many artists, for whom stylistic transitions are the kiss of death, Michaelson—without a doubt—owns her newfound pop genre all the way.

True, her vocals seem more refined than in past records, and the melodies are driven by bursts of electric guitar and synth, rather than her classic (though rather cutesy) ukulele and piano. Ultimately, the reason she succeeds seems to reside in the charming edges of her voice, which no amount of studio polish or pop excitement can fully hide. It’s this sly vocal tone that won our hearts in the first place, and it’s the reason this record works as well.

The pop influence can be seen perhaps most clearly in “Afterlife” and “You Got Me (feat. Storyman).” The latter track, with its rapid drumbeat and cheerful banjo-strumming, seems almost reminiscent of Taylor Swift at points. However, Michaelson’s vocals ring out consistently above the instrumentals, reminding us, not to worry, it’s still Ingrid. As per past records, she’s still in the habit of outdoing her male vocal partners, Storyman’s voice comes off rather nasally when contrasted with Michaelson’s light, airy tone.

In the following track, “Warpath,” Michaelson changes gears, attempting to introduce a harder edge into the lyrics and melody. However, though she shoots for “menacing,” she falls short, somewhere around “displeased.” Nonetheless, the swing-and-clap rhythm and slurring harmonies are decidedly catchy, and will no doubt inspire an impressive number of covers…leave it to Ingrid Michaelson to make a song called “Warpath” tame enough to evoke images of female a cappella groups.

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The centerpiece of the album, no question, is the lead single, “Girls Chase Boys.” Though undoubtedly a breakup song, the lyrics reflect an impatience for emotional melodrama: “All the broken hearts in the world still beat/Let’s not make it harder than it has to be.” The melody seems to echo this optimism, with a girlish bounce that’s intangibly (and perhaps embarrassingly) addicting. As one YouTube commentator put it, “This is my new favorite song [and] I’m a 36 year old male…did I just turn gay???”

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Beyond the catchiness of the melody, the real talking point of the song is undoubtedly its music video. Inspired by Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible,” the video features the lead singer performing amidst a crowd of male and female models, all of whom — even the men — are dressed up in gaudy colors and exaggerated makeup: cherry-red lipstick and heavy eyeshadow.

“The video…attempts to turn stereotypical gender roles on their head,” explains Michaelson, on her Facebook page. “Girls don’t exclusively chase boys. We all know this! We all chase each other and in the end we are all chasing after the same thing: love.”

However, the gender reversal—whether intentionally or not—turns out more strange and amusing than seriously controversial. Again, the YouTube comments are telling: “I’m confused between who’s male and who’s female now, but I’d really like a pair of those purple trousers.”

In the end, this video may be emblematic of the album as a whole. No, Lights Out doesn’t have the quiet coffeehouse charm as many of Michaelson’s earlier hits (“The Way I Am,” “You and I”). On this record, we see a Michaelson older, and more aware, above all, of how the industry is changing.

Despite the shift in style, it’s clear from Lights Out that Michaelson is more confident in her music and ability than ever. Let’s face it: anyone who can pull off a break-up music video filled with androgynous models has to be doing something right.

Voice’s Choices: “Girls Chase Boys,” “Warpath”

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