6/10 For Human Again, her fifth LP and first since 2009’s Everybody, New York singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson has teamed up with producer David Kahne (Regina Spektor, Lana Del Rey) for something of a departure from her previous work. Describing the break from the more delicate style of her prior albums, Michaelson notes: “Not to diss my old work, but I feel like I’ve done the whole barefoot singer-songwriter thing,” adding that Human Again is “fiercer” and “less childlike”. There’s certainly a sense of purpose about the album. The melodramatic indie-pop of ‘Fire’ sets the tone immediately, all pulsating guitars and angular strings, topped off with an insistent, catchy vocal hook from Michaelson. ‘Do It Now’ takes a similar approach, marrying a jerky string section with soft background vocals, but the absence of a big, attractive chorus actually works in its favour, giving the melody room to breathe and to unfold naturally.
Michaelson stretches herself elsewhere – the driving ‘Blood Brothers’ boasts a sturdy drum beat and finds her adopting more of a country-ish feel in the turns of its melody; ‘Black & Blue’, meanwhile, is an unusual fusion of Michaelson’s charming if occasionally underwhelming indie-pop style with a kind of warped R&B swagger. It’s not entirely successful, but the openness to experimentation is welcome. The album finds its footing best when Michaelson relaxes into the songs a bit more. ‘How We Love’ is particularly gorgeous with its incredibly simple approach putting the focus on Michaelson’s voice and guitar, but its intimacy and lack of overproduction works wonders. The reverb-soaked ‘In The Sea’, too, makes use of a more spacious feel to explore a darker, more sinister tone to full effect. One can’t help but wish the same could be said of ‘Ribbons’, which has enormous potential as a beautiful acoustic guitar-based number, but whose idiosyncratic shifts in rhythm and atmosphere are bogged down by a slick production job and an overly-compressed chorus. When the slick production works, it’s because of the strength of the song in hand – for instance, lead single ‘Ghost’ succeeds by virtue of its piano lines and elegant, romantic feel.
The remainder of the album is split between slower, introspective piano-based songs and buoyant numbers in the style of ‘Fire’, such as the power chord stomp of ‘Palm Of Your Hand’. The emotive ‘I’m Through’, which finds Michaelson exploring her higher vocal register, is a little overwrought, as is the mid-tempo ‘End Of The World’. In the case of the latter, overproduction and attendant use of cheap-sounding synth effects ruins a perfectly solid song – as evidenced by its inclusion in solo live form as a bonus track at the end of the deluxe album. (Various deluxe editions of Human Again add an assortment of early home recordings and live versions.)
At its heart, Human Again feels strangely transitional; there is enough of the indie-pop sensibility of Michaelson’s past to satisfy long-time fans, but there also seems to be a little indecision about which direction to take her music. Michaelson knows her way around a winning pop hook, but over the course of an entire album the formula of her songs – steady, unremarkable verses working towards a simple, hook-packed chorus – threatens to become exhausting, and the album’s cause is not helped by some unfortunate overproduction. Too often the songs are stifled and come off sounding disappointingly bland or generic. The album shines best in its more stripped-back moments, when the glossy production is kept to a minimum and Michaelson can reveal the true nature of some of these songs.