‘Singular’ — the word used by Pharrell Williams in the video which catapulted Maggie Rogers to viral fame a few years ago — certainly applies to her new album. Heard it in A Past Life is the product of two years of hard work and has been hotly anticipated since the release of her 2017 EP Now that the Light is Fading. Except in the slower tracks, her sound still sits between dance and folk. Her lyrics are honest and relatable, layered over beats which make you want to get up and move. Although the deep connection to nature from her first single ‘Alaska’ is less visible, it is still present — the synths of ‘Overnight’ are made from frog and glacier sound samples. But there is a difference from her earlier work. These tracks feel more professional, more artfully produced. It is Rogers as she presented herself in her EP, but more refined.
‘Give a Little’, an upbeat call for empathy and building bridges, opens the album. It has multiple layers, but unfortunately some of these occasionally clash. Her smooth soprano at points verges on screechy as it competes with the multiple synths in different keys. As an opener, it falls a little flat, but is happily redeemed by the following ‘Overnight’. Here Rogers shows her penchant for subverting more muted verses to a statement chorus, as almost mono-tonal verses give way to a soaring refrain with choral backing vocals. The same is true of the vulnerable ‘Light On’. It starts out with Rogers singing over a softly-strummed guitar line, ascends to synth-filled crescendos, then simmers back down to a gentle finish. In both ‘Overnight’ and ‘Light On’ you get the sense that you are waiting for something, and when it arrives, it delivers.
As the album progresses, Rogers plays with both tempo and genre. She contrasts her more meditative songs with pacey dance tracks such as ‘The Knife’ — a sultry nod to the Parisian club music she has cited as an influence — and ‘Retrograde’, a catchy track in which her voice blends perfectly with a chaotic beat and layers of synths. In the middle of the album she slows down almost to a halt with ‘Past Life’, a track comprised of pared-down piano and vocals. It was recorded on tape in one take; its impromptu character recalls Stevie Nicks.
‘Say It’ and ‘Fallingwater’ in the album’s second half are testaments to Rogers’ variegated talents. The former’s moodiness about a crush is reminiscent of James Blake, while the latter is a gospel-like anthem about lost love. In ‘Fallingwater’, Rogers displays her voice to its full capacity, gliding over a simple piano chord sequence and an ambling beat. Its ending is characteristically unexpected, not closing at the natural break three minutes in. Instead, using stacked harmonies and escalating percussion, Rogers builds slowly and confidently to a theatrical finish. Speaking of endings, the album’s finale initially seems to redeem its slow start. The penultimate track, ‘Burning’, would not be out of place on an episode of Made in Chelsea (and I do not mean that as an insult). Although the lyrics might have sounded cheesy in the mouth of another singer, from Rogers they are genuine and joyful. One feels we have come full circle from the introspective earlier tracks.
Rogers nevertheless heads back to introspection with her final song ‘Back in My Body’, an 80s-inspired anthem about coming back to yourself. Yet her skill for production works against her here. The acoustic version of this song that she performs in her eponymous documentary is more authentic, more anguished. But maybe that is the point. The swelling synths and drums provide empowerment to what is otherwise a sad tale of a young girl struggling to deal with her new-found fame. In that sense, ‘Back in my Body’ is symbolic of the album’s message: Rogers’ ascent into the public eye is initially something she cannot control, but by the end it is absorbed by her grounding force, her defiant determination to write her own story. She has risen above the oft-fleeting nature of viral fame and is here to stay.