If you’ve ever been to a coffee shop that uses a chalkboard menu and reusable cups, you’ve no doubt heard the charming and original vocals of Ingrid Michaelson. In fact, if one were to personify caffeinated conventions in a hipster coffee shop, I think that Michaelson would be chai: something sweet and spicy yet always therapeutic. In her newest album, Lights Out, somebody had the wild idea of throwing a shot of espresso in the mix to take us out of our warm and fuzzy lyrical reverie of the old Michaelson and into something more upbeat and mainstream. In other words, Michaelson has become the coffee hybrid: a dirty chai.
This album combines familiar Michaelson sounds with a fast tempo and rock vibe. In songs such as “Warpath” and “Time Machine,” she abandons her acoustic tendencies and sensitive vocals for a sound that is more akin to pop. The depth and honesty to the lyrics of her classic songs “Die Alone” and “Corner of Your Heart” are missing in these songs in favor of more standard themes. In “Time Machine,” she addresses the ever-present theme of making mistakes and wanting to go back in time to change them. “Afterlife” channels any post-apocalyptic track that advocates living tonight as though there is no tomorrow. Here, her sound can be likened to Sara Bareilles, with a commonality in their unique voices and pop-like accompaniment. These tracks are fun, catchy, and ideal for karaoke car rides, but they offer a different side of Michaelson. It is a louder and more adventurous side, and what she may lack in creativity, she makes up for in energy.
Michaelson introduces more electronic instruments in these energetic tracks, such as the electric guitar and keyboard. The result is a less organic and more manufactured sound. She still manages to maintain some of her quirkiness by using nontraditional instruments and song forms. This is evident in “Handsome Hands,” for example, because she experiments with orchestral instruments to create a unique and somewhat eerie tone. It introduces a side of Michaelson that is neither pop nor folk, but almost alternative.
Though some of her new tracks lack their usual lyrical quirk, the album’s single, “Girls Chase Boys,” shows experimentation in subject matter. The lyrics interchange the words “boys” and “girls” and thus reject any gender binary to embrace equality regardless of sexual orientation. If you watch the music video, the camera furthers this meaning by sexualizing men and women equally. I think that this speaks to Michaelson’s attempt not only to connect with the public on a social and political level, but also to push her fans and inspire them to grow with her.
In an effort to reach a broader audience, Michaelson also collaborated with different artists, from the newly emerging band A Great Big World to fellow folksinger (and hubby!) Greg Laswell. Here, unlike on the formerly mentioned tracks, Michaelson doesn’t feel the need to compensate for any simplicity in the orchestration; the richness produced by the two sets of vocals is enough. If you’re a sucker for duets like I am, you will particularly enjoy these tracks.
There are still many moments in the album that are true to the old Michaelson. In “Ready to Lose” and “Wonderful Unknown,” she revisits her roots with personal and poetic lyrics. She speaks of relationships with an honesty and candor that is similar to past songs such as “Starting Now” and “The Way I Am.”
Overall, I thoroughly recommend this album. I’ve had many personal dance parties to “Girls Chase Boys,” and Michaelson’s other upbeat tracks are starting to grow on me. I immediately loved the songs that were reminiscent of her old stuff: the sparsely accompanied pieces with her looped harmonies. However, it is this simplicity that I find missing from much of the album. Michaelson’s old songs were like a poem played over a simple melody with honest lyrics. They were songs that undoubtedly resonated with you not just through the lyrics, but rather a mood and intimacy that was translated through her style and singing alone.
In this album Michaelson demotes this intimacy in favor of exploration into the musical accompaniment. The lyrics are slightly stripped of substance, and the melodies are fuller and derivative of pop. This record represents her evolution as an artist; she experiments with her sound and different sides of her emotional self in an attempt to uncover her identity. It is an exploration that I think she has not yet resolved. The first song on the album is called “Home,” and throughout the album she travels to different places and genres in an effort to find it: her home, her identity.
Right now she is a dirty chai, one step away from her old self—but take away that syrupy sweetness and some of that spice, and she could transform into a new confection, be it straight coffee or an entirely new genre.
Michaelson will keep hold of her die-hard fans with songs that recall her signature style, but she will also gain new friends thanks to her diverse new set of tracks. The album concludes with a track titled “Everyone Is Gonna Love Me Now,” and I think that this was the album’s mission: to accrue new perspectives and make some new friends. If there is anything Michaelson has taught us, in albums both old and new, it’s that sometimes you need just a little bit of love.