Ingrid Michaelson - Human Again
Record Label: Mom + Pop
Release Date: January 24th, 2012
"Open heart surgery That is what you do to me Cut me up, set me free That is what you do to me..."
It's fitting and equally poetic that those aforementioned lyrics are the very first words that are able to be deciphered whilst audiences become engrossed within the midst of a thunderous storm of cinematic instrumentation, each note signaling the arrival of the fiercest of album openers, "Fire". From the first chaotic flourish of a tense string, from the initial sweep of a piano and the numerous beautiful violin chords that all collide and intertwine thereafter in stunning unison, it immediately becomes all too unequivocally clear that Ingrid Michaelson's fifth studio full-length effort, Human Again, exudes an agonizing sense of heartbreak. Although these thirteen tracks are held together by a thread of solemnity and aching loss, the candid lyrical themes aren't the only noticeable change and drastic overhaul within Michaelson's latest studio endeavor.
Where as in previous recordings, such as 2009's Everybody, Michaelson has had a tendency to over-rely on a gorgeous ukulele and the minimalistic addition of an acoustic guitar as her primary source of instrumentation, these songs however, now sound far bigger, grander, and more theatrical than they have ever threatened to sound previously. For instance, as that opening verse to "Fire" makes its seamless transition from bridge to empowering chorus, it's absurdly difficult not to become swept up within the rippling tide of soaring conviction that Michaelson conjures when she sings, "Now I'm walking in, walking into fire / I'm walking into fire with you." In between memorizing every individual word, and that memorable moment when you're belting out the most passionate of interplays straight back at Michaelson herself, it shouldn't take too long to notice that Human Again repeatedly steps outside of its rigid and predetermined confines in order to capture and create something in which to deem truly remarkable.
However, it takes more than a subtle change in musical direction, and it takes more than eloquently written first-person lyrics that are saturated in sincerity for any album to be declared as a remarkable achievement. Thankfully, the wonderful decision was also made to enlist the assistance of veteran producer, David Kahne (Imogen Heap, Regina Spektor) to oversee production duties. As a result, the record is intricately laced with eccentric strings and poignant orchestration - and it's pleasing to note that both components give the album slightly more added texture than it otherwise would've possessed. That's not to say that there isn't tantalizingly brief moments where Michaelson's signature ukulele manages to weave its way into proceedings, for it casts a warm indistinguishable glow throughout the three minute duration of the utterly gorgeous, "This Is War".
It opens with gentle brushes of ukulele before being joined almost immediately by Michaelson's echoing vocals as they sway and dance evasively around prominent bass drumbeats. "It's a wonder at all", she sings before pausing slightly, her voice partially submerged in reverb, "That I'm alive / it's a wonder at all that I'm still standing / it's a wonder at all that I survived the war between your heart and mine." The chorus soon waltzes in, the ukulele entangles fleetingly with frenetic strings and cascading electric guitar tones before it's inevitably overpowered in a soaring collision of instruments all vying for supremacy. Yet, as "This Is War" urgently rolls towards its concluding moments, the pulsating crash of cymbals lessens, strings deteriorate and vanish with one final flourish, and all that's left is that sole ukulele playing its simple continuous melody - displaying all the courage and persistence to keep playing even though it was being completely overwhelmed by virtually every other instrument. It's fitting then, that Michaelson too has been displaying those very same qualities within the track, she just has a vastly different motive to continue fighting.
"I won't surrender I will fight better You lock me out, you knock me down But I will find my way around I won't surrender 'Cause this is war."
- This Is War
Arguably the most moving moment you'll hear throughout the duration of Human Again comes in the form of the devastatingly beautiful and achingly vulnerable slow-moving ballad, "I'm Through". The lyrics revolve around the underlying theme of attempting to move on, and Michaelson's subsequent inability to let go of the failed relationships that have continually held her back to this point. When the track begins, audiences are greeted to a symphony of violins all weaving in and amongst one another, but they soon disappear almost as quickly as they arrive when the first traces of minor key piano chords radiate softly into the mix. There's a dull sense of resignation etched within Michaelson's vocal delivery as she sings with all the elegance she can possibly muster, "I'm going out again tonight / the first time in the longest time / he holds the door and holds my hand, but doesn't feel like you / we laugh at all the people in the restaurant across from us / he talks a lot, but not too much / but doesn't sound like you." From the opening verse onwards, "I'm Through" is rendered startlingly touching as vocals soar with equal amounts of passion, precision and conviction. There's a even a captivating moment where Michaelson's vocals quiver with unmistakable vulnerability and sorrow as she utters, "It's all because of you that I'm through". Some listeners may well find criticism in its lack of tempo shift or its minimalistic instrumentation, but it's undoubtedly an intimate and beautiful illustration as to the pain and heartache that stems from forcing oneself to let go, to move onwards before you're ready and prepared to do so.
If you're looking for momentary respite and relief from the ever present topic of love and heartbreak, "Blood Brothers" will provide listeners with yet another tremendously high point on the release. Once again, acoustic and electric guitars complement one another flawlessly from the opening note, pianos combine beautifully, strings sweep occasionally and distantly within the background, and the rhythmic pounding of a tambourine more than holds its own against the frequent striking of cymbals - and so it continues in a sense of subdued restraint until the lead-in to the chorus. If I can be self-indulgent just for merely the shortest of moments; the propulsive, melodic, hook-laden chorus that's featured within "Blood Brothers" is the most memorable and utterly breathtaking moment you're likely to hear during Human Again. Those same strings that were sweeping at the beginning of the track now wane under an intense amount of pressure, seemingly moments from collapsing spectacularly just as a choir of Michaelson's own high-rising vocal layers glide gracefully into proceedings. "What you need, what you need I need too / what you are, what you are I am too / 'cause we're all the same, under a different name / we're all blood / blood brothers." It's a track penned for the purpose of encouraging audiences to love, respect and appreciate not just the people we care about and adore, but also everyone that we come into direct contact with on a daily basis.
"Ribbons", on the other hand, is a luscious track that incorporates a clever and fascinating excerpt revolving around the lyric, "He told me that he'd love me til there was no more / told me that he'd love me from the top to the floor / wrapped me up in ribbons then he went to the door." It's metaphorical and certainly a unique analogy for decorating someone with promises, only to then break those same vows to devastating consequences. Michaelson soon realizes that she's been mislead by compelling illusions that love can at times generate, and she's left to pick up the pieces as she sings with a touch of impatience and with the air of somebody no longer willing to believe any promise unless she's strictly uttered it to herself, "I'm not flying / I'm not flying am I? / I'm not flying so damn high in the sky." Perhaps after having endured so much heartbreak, "Palm Of Your Hand" sees the songstress attempt to embrace the hurt, aches, wounds and pains that stem directly from broken relationships. The tempo is urgent and energetic from the very beginning, there's an alarming feeling of recklessness able to be heard etched in Michaelson's delivery, and so it proves to be accurate when she sings without compromise or an ounce of indecision:
I'm over the haze of never knowing
If I can still feel what is real
Will someone punch me out?
And oh boy, I know boy
I need a breakdown
Can you crush me in the palm of your hand?
There's nobody else who can
You know you crush me
In the palm of your hand"
- Palm Of Your Hand
As Human Again reaches its latter stages, audiences are treated to the first official single, the haunting and aptly titled, "Ghost". Built around sparse keys and driven once again by fluctuating piano chords, it's one of the rawest and most compelling tracks on offer. It features a luscious mid-tempo melody that somewhat masks Michaelson once again staggering and struggling to recover from yet another painful breakup - but this time her voice is accompanied by traces of muted electric guitar, emotional strings and subtle percussion. "Do you remember the sound that the door made when you closed it on me? / do you know that I went down to the ground? / landed on both my broken hearted knees / I didn't even cry, because pieces of me had already died / I'm a ghost haunting these halls / climbing up walls that I never knew where there / and I'm lost / broken down the middle of my heart" It's yet another melodic gem of a track that should appeal to anyone who has ever felt a shell of their former selves, incomplete and aimlessly searching for that something, or someone, who will assist in putting us back together and making us feel complete once more.
There are very few negatives in which to be found on Michaelson's fifth studio full-length, Human Again, which in itself is surprising given that the artist has taken such enormous steps to overhaul her sound into something far more moodier and grander. There are of course tracks that can be considered weak when put into context with the remainder of the album, but it's through no glaring fault of their own. Rather, it's a mere consequence that stems from the finer tracks setting the highest of standards that the other remaining songs simply couldn't reach. "In The Sea" is perhaps the blandest and most unoriginal of the cuts, for it doesn't feature a memorable or redeeming chorus. "How We Love" is a beautiful little track, but when it only has cute ukulele and acoustic guitar melodies to "propel" it forwards, it ends up severely lacking cohesiveness when placed alongside many of the orchestral, string-laden tracks that come immediately before and after it. However, these are only the most minor of criticisms in what is undoubtedly a charming and equally gorgeous sounding release. After the abundance of heartbreak and sorrow coursing throughout the duration of Human Again, it's touching that it should end on a romantic note; and so it does with Michaelson finding that elusive form of closure that tried so desperately to evade her. An early, yet nonetheless worthy album of the year contender.
"When the moon breaks up and the tide goes out of control
Will you find me in the water and swim me to the stars?
At the end of the world, will you find me?
At the end of the world, will you find me so that we can go together?"
I've lurked here for five years and finally made an account last week. Avid reader of your reviews and this is the best one yet. Great stuff.
Thanks so much, I'm thrilled you took the time to read through it all!
I was slightly nervous all through the writing process because once I began writing the introduction, I knew it was going to be really quite lengthy. Plus I wanted to attempt to do the record the justice I believe it deserves, so that was really important to me.