Singer/songwriter Ingrid Michaelson’s heart is like a vineyard grape: a fragile object that was stomped on and crushed until all that was left of it was a bloody mess.
With a mess like that, you can do two things: either discard what’s left or use it to create a bottle of wine. And the latter is precisely what Ingrid has done with her fifth release, Human Again. She’s taken her heartbreak and turned it into the finest Merlot: a richly textured and full-bodied product with deep crimson tones and a satisfyingly tart edge.
Channeling the angst and vulnerability of its predecessors like Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill or Kelly Clarkson’s My December, Human Again is a raw and brutal portrait of the end of a relationship and the tide that comes after the storm.
On Human Again, Ingrid also trades in her signature ukulele for a grittier rock sound to match the darkness of the album’s theme. Upon first hearing her play cuts from the record at her annual Holiday Hop back in December (which I reviewed here), I immediately knew that Human Again would give birth to a much more mature and musically evolved Ingrid than the one her fans were used to.
And while the record is a natural next stop following her last release (2009’s Everybody), Human Again will come as a surprise to those who expect another near-acoustic compilation of cutesy love songs and occasional Grey’s Anatomy-ready self-deprecating ballads.
The album opens with “Fire,” a track with a string opening so bombastic that it almost seems like it’s challenging the orchestration of The Veronicas’ “Untouched” to a duel. The track perfectly sets up the tone of the album as Ingrid sings about pursuing a toxic love. And despite knowing the danger that lies within the flames, she can’t help but be the moth drawn to its enticing glow.
“You burn me up and I love it/Now I’m walking in, walking in a fire/I’m walking in a fire with you/I’m walking in, walking in a fire/When I walk into you,” Ingrid sings over the driving percussion pulse and a clashing battle of violins.
Up next is “This Is War,” a song about the struggles one must face when leaving a relationship behind. But instead of succumbing to the pain inflicted upon her, Ingrid uses the track to pick herself up from the ditch her former lover is kicking her into. “You lock me out and knock me down/And I will find my away around/I won’t surrender/This is war,” she triumphantly declares.
This Oprah-approved attitude of moving forward and learning from a relationship instead of allowing it to cripple you is one that appears throughout much of Human Again. Upbeat tracks like the rock-driven “Palm Of Your Hand,” the funk-injected “Black and Blue” and the confectious piano-pop anthem “Do It Now” showcase Ingrid’s unwillingness to settle – no matter how tempting a prospect at times.
But as in any tale of major heartbreak, for every moment of strength comes a moment of weakness. A moment where despite your better judgments, you give into your masochistic instincts and find yourself paralyzed by the after-effects of sleeping in the bed you once shared with someone you love. And on Human Again, these moments are abound.
The most harrowing example is “I’m Through,” a gut-wrenching ballad that tells the story of Ingrid’s inability to let go of her ex. In the song, she’s dating someone new. They laugh together and have a seemingly good time, but, simply put, “he holds the door and holds my hand but doesn’t feel like you.” Never one to shy away from exposing her innermost emotions in her lyrics, Ingrid has written a song that flawlessly illustrates the pain that comes with trying to force yourself to move on before you’re ready to.
Yet sometimes feeling that pain is precisely the kick in the ass you need to be able to continue. “No, no, don’t rescue me/I like the saltwater sting/It feels so good to feel/It feels so good just to feel something,” she sings on the Fiona Apple-esque “In The Sea.” In other words, the wound is raw is but the pain is at least a reminder that she’s still capable of feeling. Way to put a positive twist on a heart-shattering concept, huh?
Production wise, Human Again is the most advanced we’ve heard Ingrid yet. Songs like album standout “Ribbons,” the bluesy “End Of The World” and bonus track “Live It With Love” are fueled by illustrious harmonies and background vocals that accompany her already gorgeous voice far more than in her previous releases.
Yet don’t be fooled into thinking that the singer/songwriter quality of Ingrid’s music is gone. Tracks like the soft “How We Love,” “Keep Me Warm” and “Always You” serve as gentle reminders that Ingrid is still the go-to chanteuse for your smoky coffeehouse playlists.
Debuting at the top of the iTunes charts and projected to premiere in the top five on next week’s Billboard charts, Human Again is a true testament to Ingrid’s artistry. It’s a rare record in that it marks a major evolution for an already established musician while both preserving and amplifying the authenticity of her previous releases.
Scaling the entire spectrum of heartbreak, Human Again is an album as phenomenal as it is honest from start to finish. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy now. But fair warning: if you’ve recently experienced a bad breakup, you may want to hide all sharp objects before listening.
Human Again was released on January 24. (iTunes)
Alex Nagorski is a contributor to MuuMuse.