By today’s popstar image standards, Ingrid Michaelson’s popularity is sometimes a bit of an anomaly. Flying in the face of current tactics such as overused autotune, overloud mastering, controversial fashion choices and provocative public behavior (whether on or off stage), Michaelson has built a persona based on understatement, maintaining a girl-next-door look and publicly downplaying her own talent. And yet, ask almost any aspiring singer-songwriter today (particularly of the female persuasion), and Ingrid Micahelson will inevitably be cited as a major influence.
All that to say, there’s definitely something remarkably appealing about Michaelson—and that something is the art of the song itself. Simply put, she crafts amazing songs, over and over again. She’s a master of hooks and melodies, and she knows how to deliver her own tunes vocally in an irresistible manner. It is this strength of songwriting that is the centerpiece of her latest and arguably best effort, Lights Out. It is also the consistent thread tethering the track list together, allowing Michaelson to dip her toe into a variety of styles without the record sounding aimless or lost.
As most artists do, Michaelson has explored various sounds from album to album, and there was some complaint that 2012’s Human Again with its heavy orchestrations pushed the production in too “big” of a direction for her particular style. With Lights Out, the production is more reined in, more proportionate. The sound goes “big” now and then, but it makes sense in context, and the range is such that Michaelson sounds equally as compelling in the quiet “Open Hands” as she does on the cinematic “Handsome Hands” or the epic closing bars of “Everyone Is Gonna Love Me Now.”
Even with this reined-in production, the album still shows a great deal of range in several ways. First of all, where Michaelson has previously struggled to get faster than mid-tempo, she’s thrown a fair amount of upbeat tunes on this 14-track record, and she’s remarkably convincing in the process, particularly on tunes like “Afterlife” and “Time Machine.” Secondly, she draws on guest appearances from a respectable roster of friends, with features from Mat Kearney, A Great Big World, Trent Dabbs, Storyman and husband Greg Laswell.
And third—as I alluded to before, Michaelson touches on a wide range of musical styles while managing to make them all sound like they belong on the record. Of course, there are the signature quirky-catchy tunes like lead single “Girls Chase Boys” and the hand-clappy “Warpath,” and the softer piano ballads like “Over You” and “Open Hands.” But then she ventures into the Beatle-esque “Wonderful Unknown” (sung with her husband Greg Laswell), the 90-s piano/rock of “Time Machine” and the 80s electro-pop vibe of “One Night Town.” And the thing that tethers these styles together, that makes them “fit,” is the songwriting. The album itself seems to demonstrate the truth that a well-crafted song sounds good in any genre or style.
Often, we critics measure a record by the way it shows the artist’s growth and evolution, or by the way it breaks ground. Other times, a great record is just a great record because it’s a great record. It would be a stretch to consider Ingrid Michaelson’s Lights Out as groundbreaking because there isn’t any really new territory covered here. However, what makes it a great record is the art of the song. Michaelson has definitely put her best foot forward, doing what she does best—and in the process, she’s put out the best record of her career thus far. It’s obvious that Ingrid Michaelson is destined to be a strong influence on upcoming singer-songwriters for years to come. And that’s a good thing.