The Consummate Songcraft of Maggie Rogers Gets an Overhaul on ‘Surrender’
Few singer-songwriters in recent years have enjoyed a success story quite like Maggie Rogers. While Rogers was pursuing a degree at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, a 2016 master class recording went viral, in which Pharrell Williams was brought nearly to tears by her song “Alaska.” Rogers was promptly hailed as a rising star, and met expectations, becoming a critics’ darling with her 2019 debut, “Heard It In a Past Life.” The album stood out for its polish and poise, and Rogers’ expressive voice and songwriting. Yet, it seemed to capture an artist still in search of her sound. Rogers sophomore effort, “Surrender,” finds her still exploring, while taking a decisive turn in an unanticipated direction. The sound of the album was shaped considerably by the fact that Rogers started writing the songs in pandemic isolation. While many artists reacted to the restlessness of lockdowns by creating dancier music, Rogers sought to recreate the physicality of music she missed from concerts, which translated largely to the energy of distorted guitars and live drums. This has a transformative effect that becomes evident seconds into the album. From the onset, this record is a full band affair, worlds away from the clean clarity of Rogers debut release. The pointed pop crafting is still here, but with a deceptively messy new interface. The tones and textures are darker and denser. “Surrender” shares its title with Rogers’ 2022 Harvard Divinity School thesis, for a graduate program exploring the influence of religion on public life. The topic seeps into the songs, which seek escape, gratification, and composure in various ways. Altogether, the new album is a more muscular work than Rogers’ debut, with songs that reveal a master at her craft, albeit one who is still developing her defining aesthetic.
There is both strain and composure in Rogers’ voice on “Overdrive,” but the strain is the dominant component. It fits the sentiment, with the song’s sparse lyrics centering around the admission, “I’m in overdrive.” When the line comes, Rogers slightly chokes up and veers off, taking on a vaguely delirious tone, then slides into a joyride falsetto. By the end of the track, you will have been subjected to a thorough emotional onslaught. While Rogers’ voice remains the focal point on “Surrender,” even it comes with some fuzz this time, atop distorted guitars. Moreover, the tone that predominates under all of the vocal layers, prior to any processing, is markedly distinct from that on “Heard It In a Past Life.” The crisp, buoyant quality and levity audible on that record are almost altogether absent on “Surrender.”
On “That’s Where I Am,” chopped vocal snippets form an uneasy backdrop, and a spacious, handclap-heavy arrangement vaguely revisits some of her last album’s dynamics. In moments, Rogers brings a blockbuster chorus, bolstered by brass, with the tormented voicings of “Overdrive” lurking underneath more modest vocal lines. The lyrics are about as vapid as they are infectious — “It all works out in the end / Wherever you go, that’s where I am.” It becomes easier to appreciate the song upon learning its backstory. After watching “10 Things I Hate About You,” on a plane, Rogers set out to write a song that could play during the credits of a rom-com, particularly one that sounded as outlandishly sure of oneself as the characters in such movies. In this sense, the song is a triumph.
“Want Want” is not necessarily as successfully realized, In a Twitter post, Rogers wrote, “This song is about sex. No real other way to say it.” Perhaps the song’s greatest attribute is that one wouldn’t necessarily know this from the lyrics. This modest discretion and some instantaneous hooks are enough to make for a surefire single. But in this case, the chorus of “If you want-want what you want-want, then you want it” is simply too grating and cloying, even if taken with a playful suspension of judgment. The tune is catchy, although perhaps too much for its own good. At any rate Rogers’ wail in the end, over the jarring, incessant choruses, is triumphant.
The memorable choruses come one after another, as do the escapist lyrics. On “Anywhere With You,” Rogers sings about “cruising 95 like we got nothing to lose / I’m praying to the headlights like I prayеd to you / Before I found you.” There’s a Springsteen spirit to it, and Rogers sings with a new tone of yearning. The clichéd titular phrase is well-suited for what appears a final, distorted sign off, but Rogers returns impassioned and largely indecipherable for another chorus, until a clear voice seeps in, affirming one last time, “I’ll go anywhere with you.” One has to hand it to Rogers for seeing her songs through. “Horses” is a well-crafted pop song on all accounts, but can come across as rather formulaic. At any rate, the range and nuance in Rogers’ voice is exceptional — the way she pants, swells and coils up, contorting every which way. There are worlds in just her delivery, and the serrated guitar tones and live drums bring it out, indeed evoking all the chaos and excitement of live performance. The hook makes a mark, and if only its melody were less hackneyed, the song might do Rogers more justice.
Several songs are measured explorations of ennui. On “Be Cool,” Rogers begins, “Sick of the sound of self-importance / I fucked off for a month or two… Drunk on the month of June.” She approaches her melodies with a soulful slant, humorously fitting the “Be Cool” message,” and her voicings grow more frenzied over the course of the song, as if she’s trying to match her subject’s nervous energy in order to mellow them out. On “Begging For Rain,” Rogers sings as if she has yelped and never exactly rebounded, caught in a limbo of constant tension. The track gracefully trudges along, conjuring an inconclusive grind, as she sings, “You work all day to find religion / And end up standing in your kitchen / Wondering ’bout the way it’s always been.” Subtle musical gestures are put to illustrative purpose, like choirs that extend indefinitely as the beat wears to a flimsy cadence as the “begging” persists. Whirling synths provide transformative textures on “Honey,” another track that finds Rogers laboring in this vein. A rather forced and halfhearted chorus appears instituted by design, as Rogers elongates her vowels and wails as if to mock the futility of her efforts — “If you’re wonderin’ what you should do with your life / Honey, if I knew, I would tell you, wouldn’t I?”
“Shatter,” perhaps the album’s most adventurous track, is a sonic standout, with a quirky arrangement reminiscent of ‘80s new wave stylings that gives the music an invigorating jolt. Rogers outdoes herself with a performance that escalates to manic excesses. She sounds fittingly crazed upon the refrain of “I don’t really care if it nearly kills me,” while the punchy soundscape of synths and handclaps reframe her energy and throw off the balance. Rogers zeroes in on post-pandemic existential dread, singing of “coming up for oxygen,” and noting, “The world’s the same, but something’s changing.” She recalls “the summer my heroes died,” describing a plight that becomes chillingly relatable when she laments, “I just wish that I could hear a new Bowie again.” The accruing emotion is enough to floor you as she repeats, “I’m scared, I’m scared, I’m scared,” disregarding any tenets of propriety and letting out an unhinged punk rock shriek. The track flashes a side of Rogers that was hidden until now, with thrilling prospects for future exploration. Another number that finds Rogers playing up her quirk to delightful effect is “I’ve Got a Friend,” unlike anything else on the album. There’s a craft to how Rogers fits her lyrical meter to her guitar strumming, and she makes her lyrics memorable by throwing in hyper-specific details, like “I’ve got a friend who’s been there through it all / Masturbates to Rob Pattinson, staring at the wall.” Elevating the entire track is a whimsical piano, courtesy of jazz mastermind Jon Batiste, who makes sparing but always significant contributions to the album. The keys surprise with every note, in a way that somehow reflects the childish quirk of the lyrics’ concluding couplet — “I got a friend / And she’s got a friend too.”
The songs in the final stretch are a less immediate but more dynamic lot, continuing with “Symphony,” on which Rogers’ still voice takes on an ethereal quality and the music finds a new economy of gesture, at moments recalling Stereolab. Lyrics like “There’s a symphony / Going on inside my head” can be a bit hard to take, no matter how you might imagine them fitting into the overall voice and vision. But when Rogers sings, “Take a breath,” and the overlain instrumentation wheezes like a sighing breath, there’s a transcendent fitting to purpose. Finally, “Different Kind of World” finds Rogers still struggling to make sense of things, singing, “My knees are aching, back is breaking / Thinking ’bout the state of the world” over a fragile, threadbare backdrop, only able to conclude, “When we’re ridin’ all together / It’s a different kind of world.” Out of the blue, a drum fill cues a triumphant stadium rockout, before the track gently winds down.
Perhaps the concluding moments depict the final fight before “surrender.” Rogers begins the album in “overdrive,” and, over the course of its running time, seeks escape in numerous forms, much like people do with religion. From the self-aware, jokey escapism of “That’s Where I Am” to the carnal pleasures of “Want Want,” the hopeless romanticism of “Anywhere With You” to the appeal to nature on “Horses,” she shuttles from one outlet to the next, in search of ways to fill the void, before the final sigh that comes across in the closing number. In the end, the album comes across more like an exploration than a cohesive statement. Tying the songs together is a heavier, more full-bodied sound that gives the album an entirely different feel from Rogers’ debut. Apart from that, the strength of the album lies primarily in the quality of its individual songs. Rogers’ singing shines first and foremost, with every track offering a dramatic performance, and together displaying an expanded expressive range, Rogers’ songs exist in the elusive space between broad accessibility and her personal quirks, a domain in which genius is easily compromised in the name of good taste. That said, the way that lyrics, melodies, and musical textures all function together around Rogers’ often staggering vocals once again proves she is worthy of the hype surrounding her, even if it seems that her best work is likely yet to come.
“Surrender” releases July 29 on Apple Music.