ALBUM: It Doesn’t Have to Make Sense ARTIST: Ingrid Michaelson
Album release date: August 26 / 2016
If You Are Chilly . . .
I remember where I was the first time I heard Ingrid Michaelson. I was sitting in the car, parked outside the video store (we’re talking 2007, baby), when a chirpy, witty tune came on the radio: I’d buy you Rogaine when you start losing all your hair…Sew on patches to all you tear. The bass-line, coffee-shop percussion, and Ingrid’s distinct vocal tone and delivery made for the quintessential ear-worm. I hurried home with my DVDs, hopped onto Limewire (…we all make mistakes), and downloaded the song. I learned it on the guitar and performed it tirelessly at coffeeshops on Thursday nights: like the rest of America, I was mildly obsessed with the folk-pop sound captured by this quirky musician, who stood out from the heavily produced, collagen-pumped hip-hop celebrities of the early 2000s (this was before the descent of Mumford, remember: Michaelson was the first experience of “relevant” folk-pop most teens had had).
The song, entitled The Way I Am, was the biggest hit on Michaelson’s second album Girls and Boys, and gained notoriety primarily through placement in Old Navy ads and various TV shows. Michaelson went from relative obscurity to celebrity-status basically overnight, though, while many folks recognized her music, not all knew her name: “I think for a while I was the Old Navy girl, or the ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ girl: people need to label you to diminish and to understand,” she says in an interview, adding, “It’s a blessing and a curse, because the placements are how I make a living, but it comes around to bite you because you become known as this one entity.” Through the years Michaelson has released six albums, two of which in particular illustrate her cleverness as a lyricist and musician worthy of recognition beyond television placements – 2012’s Human Again and 2014’s Lights Out both received generally favorable reviews from critics and fared well commercially, gaining Michaelson a slew of new fans.
Sweater-vests, pumpkin pie… and a Series of Unfortunate Events
Yet, for all her work writing, producing, recording, and touring over these past 11 years, Michaelson still remains under the radar, commercially speaking: she isn’t what one might call a superstar. And, while she expresses frustration with being pigeon-holed as the backdrop to saccharine commercials and teenage summer flings, she nonetheless continues to pen songs that fit that genre perfectly, so it’s no small wonder she continues to be tethered to evening television slots. Her latest release, It Doesn’t Have to Make Sense, feels for the most part like it was written with L.L. Bean’s Fall Collection in mind, complete with gorgeous people smiling with beatific radiance and a shaggy dog jumping clumsily into the back of a pumpkin wagon.
That’s not to say that the album doesn’t have richness to it: several songs strike me as being some of Michaelson’s best to date (I am an avid Ingrid fan, and have most of her albums). But for all the anthemic, glossy-pop, hand-clapping, celebratory production that imbues this record, there is a weariness that comes through it more clearly than anything else: a dulling of the usual specificity, wit, and bravery Michaelson’s work typically exemplifies. This probably has to do with the two events she cites as being major inspirations for the project: her mother’s death to cancer, and her divorce from husband Greg Laswell – both of which occurred within 18 months.
The Spherical Shape of Grief
The two saddest songs on the album, I Remember Her and Drink You Gone, grapple with these two traumatic events with a depth of tenderness and grief seldom found in song-writing. Ingrid Michaelson blossoms where she’s the rawest, her unusual writing-style painting painfully personal, dense images. In I Remember Her, an austere song that involves nothing musically other than piano and the human voice, you can feel Ingrid holding the memory of her mother’s face and hands in her mind’s eye as she returns to the most fundamental memories of her childhood. It is an open-ended song: there is a feeling of resignation – a certain twinge of bitterness at what appears to be the finality of death – and yet also a note of certainty that somehow, somewhere, the life of her mother made a difference and reverberates currently in the lives of the children she left behind.
The rest of the songs, for the most part, feel forced and tired – almost as though Michaelson is trying to remember what it feels like to experience a full-range of emotions in a given day, but can’t: her mind is too distracted distancing itself from grief, whilst simultaneously clinging to grief. It doesn’t make sense. But I get the feeling Michaelson knows that, and that she’s relinquishing the desire to understand and control.
Sometimes the most freeing thing we can do in the face of suffering is say, It doesn’t have to make sense.