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Album Review: Maggie Rogers’ ‘Heard It in a Past Life’

The newcomer makes musical comfort food out of ambivalence and anxiety in an arresting major-label debut.

Maggie Rogers earned one of those very rare “Saturday Night Live” slots in which a musical guest is booked onto the show well in advance of her major label debut album’s release — two and a half months prior, in this case. And the scrutiny of such an appearance is not always pretty. Rogers’ “SNL” gig in early November prompted all kinds of immediate and polarizing commentary: Did someone pull in a major favor, or is she all that? Does she have stage presence, and if not, do we love her slightly geeky lack of it or think she got pushed out too soon? Really, the last time any supposedly about-to-bust-wide-open newcomer inspired those kinds of reactions in an “SNL” debutante moment was Lana Del Rey. Ultimately Lana was just fine — fiercely just fine, in fact — and, based on the strength of “Heard It in a Past Life,” I have to think things are going to work out pretty all right for Rogers, too.

Not that Rogers is going to become some kind of cultural phenomenon the way Del Rey did… and not that she wants to. The 24-year-old rural Maryland native has had an openly uneasy relationship with fame ever since a video of Pharrell Williams “discovering” her in a college music class went viral in 2016, sparking a reported bidding war among major labels. She’s really an unlikely target for that kind of attention: Lorde-like awkward dance moves aside, her songs are at the core deeply introspective and pretty, not the two most prized qualities for prospective stardom in 2019. It’s not surprising that she would feel highly ambivalent about the star-making machinery, and not entirely a shock that, perhaps as a result, she’s written nearly an entire album about ambivalence.

Or maybe the songs really are all about a boy and not the music business, as they would appear to be on the surface. Who knows? Whatever their psychological basis, Rogers’ lyrics keep coming back to situations where she’s survived an initial flirtation and breakup and is now in the position of deciding whether to pick things back up again. This is at the heart of “Light On,” the single that has topped the adult-alternative charts and has probably the most conventional uptempo-ballad instrumentation on the album. “The noise got too loud, with everyone around me saying, ‘You should be so happy now,’” she explains to a lover — or business manager! — about “crying in the bathroom” when she was supposed to be enjoying the rush of young love. But she’s still open to that trajectory, singing that “if you leave the light on, then I’ll leave the light on,” while also nonchalantly acknowledging that “if you’re gone for good, then I’m okay with that.” It’s a tricky set of mixed emotions to write about, but “Light On” works, as a song that gets passionate about feeling strangely passionless.

There’s a similar I-could-take-this-or-leave-it attitude to another potential single, “Overnight,” as Rogers addresses an ex and promises “I’ll still meet you in the middle of the night” but adds, suddenly a cappella as everything but the drum beat drops out, “but if you lie to me, I’m gone.” There’s an interesting, world-weary maturity to these songs: She’s expressing a willingness to be open and a tough, independent wariness all at the same time. This is something that could serve her well both in contract negotiations and love, and maybe the oldest souls among Generation Z can relate.

Left to her own devices, Rogers might drift toward traditional singer/songwriter balladry, at least if the one song she wrote and produced by herself, the solely piano-accompanied “Past Life” is any indication. And it’s fairly easy to imagine all the songs on the album existing like that in demo form. But “Heard It in a Past Life” has a smart selection of producers who are adept at taking that kind of potentially sedate material and giving it a strong pulse. Foremost among them is Greg Kurstin, who produced or co-produced or co-wrote six of the 12 tracks. His contributions here might be the closest thing he’s done to his work as half of the duo the Bird and the Bee, as far as taking female-driven songs you can imagine as moody, acoustic little album tracks and turning them into big, largely electronic pop confections with an occasional clanging rhythm guitar for added tension.

The Kurstin tracks are as irresistible as you’d expect if you know his track record, but the assortment of other co-producers who drift in for a track or two also serve her well and know enough to place the beauty of her voice starkly in the forefront. Kurstin has a thing for female background vocals that sound manipulated or sampled, but there’s a specialness to what Ricky Reed and Jack Hallenback do with “Say It,” where the more natural backing vocals lend a neo-soul feel to the proceedings. Rogers isn’t naturally big on melisma or the other markers of R&B, but “Say It” and “On + Off” portend a whole separate trance-y/soul direction that it’d be enjoyable to hear her pursue at greater length.

Pharrell famously said in that viral video that he’d never heard anyone like Rogers before, and that may not be quite as true for us as it was for him. The opening track and the album’s most optimistic, “Give a Little,” sounds like an outtake from the last HAIM album. That’s a compliment. At other times, she sounds like a dead ringer for Ryn Weaver, whose 2015 “The Fool” was one of the best pop debuts of this decade and is badly in need of a follow-up.

But Rogers is clearly her own woman, not least of all because of the preternatural calm of that voice, which feels like a balm even as Rogers the lyricist explores the edges of uncertainty and a mild anxiety. You could settle into that comforting, lovely, unassumingly familiar tone for a long time… probably even a career. If she leaves the light on, we’ll leave the light on.

Album Review: Maggie Rogers' 'Heard It in a Past Life'

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