Album Review: Maggie Rogers finds her footing, finds her voice—shouts it from the mountaintop on Heard It In A Past Life

Performing at the Boston Calling music festival last year, Maggie Rogers stepped-out into the sun in a royal-blue-jumpsuit—trailing the cape that was attached to it behind her—and gave one of the weekend’s most invigorating performances. It was a stellar and lucid moment from an artist who at the time had only a handful of singles and one viral-reaction-video to one of her songs from Pharrell Williams to really offer. But there was something in the way Rogers danced and spun and electrified the crowd with her euphoric aplomb that made the goosebumps that riddled your arms and neck almost clairvoyant in nature—something special was starting to unhinge itself within Rogers—even if you or she couldn’t put their finger on it at the time. And it had happened before.

Exactly three years previous down to the same weekend indie-heartthrob Jenny Lewis reintroduced herself with her third solo album The Voyager to fans at the Gorge Amphitheater in an ensemble of brilliant white-rainbow-bedazzlement that covered even her guitar. With a swagger and transcendence and the intention of redefining the lush intersections of alt-pop in the image of the self-enlightened, castle-in-the-clouds oddness of her pseudo-fairytale getup—Lewis reignited something within herself. It might be a gaudy stretch but anyone who had the opportunity to witness Lewis in that moment of reinvention would’ve thought of it—if only for a split-second—three-years and a few hundred miles later watching Rogers do something quite similar.

maggie rogers

Maggie Rogers at Boston Calling — Photo: Steven Ward

Rogers’ quick rise into the spotlight meant she never had the opportunity to properly introduce herself—something she remedies on her major-label debut Heard It In A Past Life. Dancing around a time-warp of explicit introspections of her past and present-self, she undertakes the monumental task of not only reintroducing—but also rediscovering—herself in the process. And throughout that twelve-song climb to such profound goals, the 24-year-old singer/songwriter manages to also carve out a niche for the bubbly-effervescence of her multi-genre-informed pop sentiments. Before she’s even had a chance to say hello, Rogers is soaking us in her best hooks and a joyous delirium on the album opener “Give A Little.” From the rubber elasticity of the song’s energized guitar-riffs and the cool way that tambourine jangles against a litany of groovy percussion-work—Rogers finds space to squeeze between the sublime a lyricism of breathless fearlessness.

The album’s side-A digs its teeth into some of the more immediate moments of Rogers’ past. Songs like “Overnight” rooted in moments that shifted—at both the cosmic and atomic level—her life forever. Or they tackle how Rogers found ways to “[dance] it all off with [her] friends,” as with the bass-line-fueled spiral into the warm-curvatures of her vocals that occurs on “The Knife.” Even “Alaska,” the single that launched her into notoriety, makes an appearance with its lofty production of subdued, glittery-pop so delightfully kindled to life by her tender coos. While on, “Light On,” sentiments of victory mingle messily—in the best and most human of ways—with cries for help from her past life. “Can you feel me now that I’m vulnerable in oh so many ways / And I’ll never change,” Rogers sings defiantly against the cascade of synth and percussion gallops.

Interestingly enough, the first act of Heard It In A Past Life ends with the last song Rogers recorded for the album: the stand-out, soul-twisting ballad of “Past Life.” Amidst a broiling confusion and deepening isolation that Rogers seems to be sinking into, there’s also a burgeoning clarity with which the singer looks back on her life as she crawls deeper into herself. It’s a sheltered moment on the album—literally and metaphorically—tucked between the neo-pop giddiness and groove of songs like “Give A Little” and “Retrograde” and guarded by their dreamy hooks as much as their resplendent confidence.

“Oh, I could feel the change a-comin’ / Saw it staring right on back at me,” she sings against the columns of reverberated piano strings. It’s a moment of cogent reflection—one that took place near the end of her journey—but is so quintessentially tied to the very core of what Rogers is wrestling with—hence its placement. Side-B of the album is a less than linear mad-dash up the final stretch of mountain-side Rogers has found herself climbing for the last two years. “Say It” is an illustrious recollection of a fond crush that never evolved into anything more than the dreamy, 90’s pop-song that now soundtracks it. While “On + Off”—another “Alaska”-era track resurrected—scratches at the scabs of Rogers’ past with an empowering exuberance.

But the only thing more refreshing than Rogers’ cutting self-awareness and faithfulness to her identity is how she remains undaunted in pushing the limits of her capabilities as a singer/songwriter. “I didn’t know I could sing like this,” she has scribbled-down on a hand-written note about the song “Fallingwater” that she posted on social media only a few days ago. The self-eviscerating ballad on regret and the strains of trying to out-grow the very way your mind seems to be wired is poignant to a fault—but it also sees Rogers getting a little plucky with her vocalizations. Harmonizations and far-flung cries take flight on the song, soaring as the instrumentation fades and we are left alone with the crystallized luminosity of Rogers’ singing. By the album’s end Rogers is planting her flag-on-the-mountaintop with the soulfully-anthemic “Back In My Body”—the radiating, “triumphant sound” of a woman reignited and fully reintroduced. Out of the phoenix-fire of romantic love on “Burning,” Rogers emerges as a cauterized melding of who she was with who she now is.

There’s a cyclical nature to Heard It In A Past Life that starts to emerge after a couple of listens—the self-aware Rogers looping in-and-out-of-and-back-in the vividly-layered fibers of experience and sound that have sown themselves into her life. And throughout it all, the singer/songwriter establishes herself as an audaciously talented navigator and creator of fervent pop-mixtures. If Lewis hadn’t started her career fronting Rilo Kiley and dived right into blurring the lines and expectations of modern-pop with a virtuoso’s touch—she probably would’ve sounded not far-off from this. Back inside her body, Rogers leans back into the line that begins “Give A Little”: “If I was who I was before”—and if she was—she posits—things would’ve turned out differently. But she’s not. And it’s the clarion call of a woman finding and claiming the sound of her own voice and the origins of her own soul right there—out in the sun—for all to see—that radiates from the album.

Heard It In A Past Life sees Rogers summit the mountain. There might be parts of her she left below and parts she still carries and just as assuredly as there will be more mountains—Maggie Rogers—for all her slips into past lives that have only emboldened her—is now looking forward.

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