Maggie Rogers Delivers Pop With Substance on Debut Album ‘Heard It In a Past Life’

Maggie Rogers made a name for herself being the star student of a masterclass with Pharrell Williams. Anyone sensible who hears her breakthrough song “Alaska” can see why. Her new record, “‘Heard It In a Past Life,” delivers more of everything that was so appealing about “Alaska.” It’s catchy, emotive, sincere, and infectious.

Opener “Give a Little” starts with a staccato beat that gives a slightly glitchy feel, but as soon as Rogers starts singing, it turns into pure pop. The chorus has the lines “But if you give a little, get a little / Maybe we could get to know each other,” which really hone in on an important, often overlooked subject – everyone is so cloaked up in their own shields that they bypass strangers with cold aversion, whereas if they simply “give a little,” they could tap into empathy and recognize their commonality. Roger sings with total prowess, making for a solid introduction.

“Overnight” gets deep, to an extent that belies the bubbly poppiness of the sound. It’s a readymade pop song that packs a punch instantly, but the lyrics tackle a hefty issue. Rogers sings, “I remember you were saying you would come back, run back….But you waited, so I got wasted.” It’s the cathartic expression of the reaction to abandonment, cleverly fit into a happy tune. “The Knife” has a heavy bassline that drives the song. The phrase “give a little” comes up again, hinting at a theme for the album. Then comes Rogers’ shining moment, the critically acclaimed “Alaska,” which impressed Pharrell Williams so much that he became a staunch promoter of Rogers. It’s easy to see why. Just the tone of Rogers’ voice is enough to send chills, with a breathy, airy, emotive sound that captures you instantly. Rogers has spoken about how the song was inspired by a time in her life when she was lost, and how the act of writing the song helped her find direction. It makes sense, as she sounds so natural, so in her element, that you can just sense the cathartic release.

“Light On” is instantly catchy in the same way as, say, eighties synth pop. There are elements of that style, just subtly. It has the same feel of some of Grimes’ more commercial tunes. The lines “You and I, there’s air in between” continue another theme of the record – the space between people, and the confounding mix of tension and attraction that exists between. “Past Life,” basically the truncated title track, has a stop-start free-flow dynamic that captures a stream of consciousness. Rogers sings about sensing a change coming – just an instinctive shift, that she’s trying to make sense of. She muses, “Oh, maybe there’s a past life coming out inside of me.” At this point in the album, you have to appreciate Rogers for her ability to imbue profound ideas into accessible pop music with such seeming effortlessness.

“Say It” gets a bit R&B, and has a layered chorus, a sort of indulgence balanced with sincerity, which nearly always makes for a good package. “On + Off” has the same spirit of “Alaska” sonically, a bit like a reprise, in a subtle way. There’s the line “When I’m shaking or my mind starts coming undone” that sums up the idea of love being like a drug. Bryan Ferry would approve. On “Fallingwater” Rogers bursts into full diva mode, with booming, soaring vocals. She’s a real singer, and this song will relieve you of any doubt. The percussion is vaguely hip-hop, the first instance of this in the album. Rogers has said, “This is a song about rapid change,” which is consistent with everything so far. The song was produced by the illustrious Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend. “Retrograde” recaptures the vaguely eighties sound of “Light On.” There’s a feistiness to Rogers’ singing that really comes out in this song. She has spoken about it being about a breakdown, but she has somehow expressed it in a way that rings cheery. Imagine what Morrissey does, but without the jarring irony, instead just a smoothly meshed hybrid.

“Burning” is a standout because of the overpowering, throbbing synth bass. The song is about being head over heels in love, and flying high on the emotions of it. And it captures the feeling perfectly. “Back In My Body” brings things to closure nicely, as you could probably guess from the title. There are the lines, “I was stopped in London when I felt it coming down / Crushing all around me with a great triumphant sound,” which are a perfect example of how a little detail can amount to universes. As an a American, being in London, and breaking down captures the sense of being a cosmopolitan nomad of sorts, struck by surprise, and disoriented. Rogers ultimately triumphs, however, coming to terms with herself, and gaining conviction.

“Heard It In a Past Life” is a phenomenal example of meritable pop music. In a time and age when we’re assaulted constantly by vapid, degenerate, empty music, Rogers’ new album is a breath of fresh air. She manages, impressively, to convey plenty substance in tunes that are immediately catchy and accessible.  

Heard It In a Past Life” releases Jan. 18 on Apple Music.