Maggie Rogers of Easton, Md., is ready to establish herself in the music industry with her new album, “Heard It in a Past Life.” The album marks the artist’s first full-length album after she shot to viral fame in 2016. Rogers’ indie-darling voice is at the forefront of the record but is dragged down by uninspired beats and overproduction.
The 24-year-old rocketed to viral stardom around three years ago with “Alaska,” a song she purportedly wrote in 15 minutes and played to Grammy-winning artist and producer Pharrell Williams after recording it at a master class with him. After a string of singles, Rogers followed up on this accidental celebrity status with “Heard It in a Past Life,” released on the industry giant Capitol Records.
The album’s first track, “Give A Little,” is a generally good display of Rogers’ soulful voice but lacks in its lyricism. Rogers sings, “But if you give a little, get a little / Maybe we could get to know each other,” which is easy to write off as an abstract call to action when listening to the bouncy chorus. On closer inspection, however, the lyrics border on a comical trope of empty-headed pop, which is uncharacteristic of Rogers’ usually compelling songwriting.
Fortunately for Rogers, her sliding vocals often distort the otherwise subpar lyrics of songs like “Give a Little.” On other songs such as “Retrograde,” though, Rogers digs deeper into a personal narrative and the consequently substantive lyrics seem to suit her strong vocals much better. Rogers shows off an impressive range reminiscent of Florence Welch as she croons, “Standing, staring straight ahead / Listening when Stevie says, / Mm, ‘Come out of the darkness.’”
The song that brought Rogers to her initial fame, “Alaska,” which appears on the album, is a whimsical track that lacks the overproduced beats found on most of the record. Reminiscent of indie-pop contemporarys like Sylvan Esso, the track marries the subtleties of synthetic pop with folksy vocals and lyrics invoking the great outdoors. “I was walking through icy streams / That took my breath away / Moving slowly through westward water / Over glacial plains,” Rogers sings, painting a picture of an Alaskan landscape.
Many of the songs on the album follow the same formulaic approach as “Give a Little,” capitalizing on Rogers’ effervescent vocals and a jangly, percussive backing track. While these songs may not be structurally complex, they are quite good for what they are: power-pop bops. The midalbum tracks “Burning” and “Light On” both use series of progressing power chords to build the song around foot-tapping backbeats and easily palatable choruses.
The track “Fallingwater” gained attention after Rogers’ rendition of the song in a haunting and dynamic performance on “Saturday Night Live” in November 2018. The track is perhaps the most stunning feature of Rogers’ voice and writing skills on the album, as she displays incredible vocal acrobatics that are reminiscent of, unsurprisingly, “falling water.”
The power behind Rogers’ voice in the emotionally rousing track is particularly poignant given the song’s focus on the perils and challenges of being thrown into the world of musical fame. Rogers has previously pushed back on her serendipitous rise to fame, asserting that the fairy tale narrative of Pharrell stumbling onto “Alaska” was too dainty. There is nothing dainty about “Fallingwater,” and Rogers seems to reclaim her narrative on this track in an album that might otherwise seem slightly remote or removed.
Ultimately, while Rogers is obviously a talented musician just at the beginning of what will most likely be a successful career, she is hamstrung by the fact that she was rushed into a record deal and producing a hasty first album. Many of the songs share the impersonal, feel-good sensibility of a Sara Bareilles song plucked off of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign playlist. Despite that, much of the album still has personal substance.
The album explores Rogers’ whirlwind experience vaulting from college student to bona fide star, and in this way the album shines. It is evident, however, that much of the homespun whimsy of “Alaska” was stifled in favor of pop-star power ballads and dancey synth-pop. That said, Rogers’ voice still shines throughout “Heard It in a Past Life.” As she explores the newfangled phenomenon of fame through soaring vocals and introspective lyrics, Rogers’ readiness to soar is unfortunately offset by the fact that her wings were clipped in this debut album.