“Open heart surgery / That is what you do to me,” croons Ingrid Michaelson on the opening track of her new album, Human Again. Often the first track on an album is a good predictor of the album’s content, and it’s true: “Fire”, like Human Again, is feisty, flavorful and features Ingrid opening her heart to the listener with a maturity not present in her past work.
This is unmistakably the same Ingrid we’ve seen in 2009’s delicate Everybody and her previous efforts, with a voice somehow both tiny and strong, and emotional, lovestruck lyrics that often unfold like this: “Here is a / here is a line / here is a typical line.” But this Ingrid seems to have emerged victorious from some conflict, because her voice is more versatile than ever, barely there in the verses and then blooming in the choruses to tear the listener apart (see album standouts “This Is War” and “Ghost”). She does not sacrifice her trademark with this newfound strength, though; somehow, Ingrid explores all ranges of sentiment without seeming indecisive … the album hops from human unity to lovers’ scorn to fireside comfort like a child across a hopscotch court, without missing a step.
But in addition to the driving, swooping vocals, the instrumentation in Ingrid’s work has blossomed to include fast-paced violins, crackling percussion, and a gallery of other noises. This is not over-production; in fact, it’s the combination of this improved instrumentation and Ingrid’s matured vocals that make all these songs so distinct and charismatic. Ingrid is salty and embittered on “In The Sea”, singing over a rootsy strumming on “Blood Brothers” and sizzling on “Fire”. There is no blend; each song is a separate gem. They simply have so much character. The production is so fantastic and charismatic that, until one stops listening, it almost makes one forget how impossibly catchy some of these songs are.
Though that’s not to say Ingrid lets go entirely of her innocent minimalist past: “I’m Through” keeps to basic piano. Ingrid sings about a lover driving her to the end of her rope, and her voice frays apart in time to the frayed lyrics. “How We Love” is another album oddity: in this timid, acoustic-fueled ballad Ingrid uses an unusual (for her) third-person narration tp relate a truly heart-warming plot.
On the piercing “Ribbons” Ingrid wails “I’m not flying / I’m not flying, am I?” but that’s the easiest thing to imagine her doing in the album’s chilling refrains and simple, joyful verses. I kept waiting for a mediocre song to come, but none did. Ingrid has struck a fine balance between her voice and her instrumentation, somehow managing to improve both and produce her finest piece of music yet. Score: 9/10.
Jake Bittle/ A&E Editor