Album Review: Maggie Rogers – ‘Heard It In a Past Life’

Maggie Rogers

Just two and a half years ago, Maggie Rogers—a small town Maryland native—was a student at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. During her senior year of high school, she had turned a broom closet into a makeshift studio and recorded her first folk album, The Echo, which she would use for her NYU application. She had initially planned on being a journalist, and during her freshman year she interned at Elle magazine for music journalist Lizzy Goodman, for whom she would transcribe and edit hundreds of hours of interviews with major musicians and journalists which would be later compiled into the book Meet Me in the Bathroom. After releasing another folk album independently in 2014, Blood Ballet, everything changed when Rogers played her song “Alaska”—which she’d written in fifteen minutes—for Pharrell Williams at an NYU masterclass in 2016, which moved him to tears. A video of the performance went viral, leading to Rogers signing a record deal with Capitol Records, and a critically acclaimed EP and North American tour followed soon after. But Rogers, just 22 years old then and 24 now, was still finding her footing as an adult and figuring out who she is—and the sudden fame and attention was immediately overwhelming. Thereafter, she generated over three million monthly listeners on Spotify and performed on both The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. Determined to take control of her own narrative, Rogers assembled her major-label debut album, Heard It In a Past Life—out everywhere today—which has made the folksy love child of Lorde and Lana Del Rey an unstoppable force wise beyond her years.

At its core, Heard It In a Past Life is a collection of soul-searching moments, almost going from found to lost to found again, making it an exceptionally mature snapshot of young adult life. “Graduating from college and starting your life as an adult is a giant transition no matter what,” she said. “My private life became public very quickly, without me having much control over it. I was scared and overwhelmed for a really long time.” Mixing pop music sensibilities with folk, synths, soothing vocals, banjos, pianos, and acoustic guitars, Rogers isn’t so much the next Lorde or Del Rey but perhaps closer to a modern-day Joni Mitchell, with the ‘70s singer/songwriter balladry and production to back it up. Not to mention her songwriting ability to capture such powerful emotional moments and pack them into 3-minute pop songs. She nods to the past by channeling Mitchell and James Taylor, and nods to the future by resembling Lorde, Jack Antonoff, or even Taylor Swift.

One of the album’s standout moments comes in the form of “Light On”—which is incredibly catchy in a way that is hard to explain—which explores introspective lyrics of sudden attention, fame, and depression over upbeat production, now recalling the music of Alessia Cara. “Would you hear me out if I told you I was terrified for days?” she sings over swelling synths. “Oh, I couldn’t stop it / Tried to slow it all down / Crying in the bathroom / Had to figure it out / With everyone around me saying / ‘You must be so happy now.’” Or the album’s final track, “Back in My Body,” whose lyrics express similar anguish: “I was stopped in Paris when I almost ran away.” Rogers explained those lyrics were inspired by her first European tour in February 2017. “I was doing so much press. It made me miserable. I remember I was in the middle of a video session in Paris and I walked outside to have a cigarette. I thought, ‘I have enough money to buy a plane ticket and I could get to the airport before people really realized where I went.’” Although the moment passed, the impulse was real. She also recounted an incident in London where someone asked her why she hadn’t performed “Alaska”—the song that made her famous—during a soundcheck, to which she said she’d grown sick of the song since she plays it all the time. Forced to play it by her management, Rogers suffered a panic attack halfway through the song and ran offstage. “Folk music usually romanticizes the road,” she said. “‘Back in My Body’ tells the opposite story.”

Mature but not glitzy, strong without comprising itself, the album’s title is an ode to surrendering to the process and letting the rest take care of itself—and separating Rogers’ story from any sense of control or agency. It’s almost an album about making an album; about getting the chance of a lifetime and how one young woman has chosen to navigate that chance. Several critics have pointed out that Heard It In a Past Life is a pop record that departs from the indie folk sounds of her previous independent releases (which has received mixed reviews; The Guardian wrote that Rogers “clearly has talent, but this album does its best to dim her light”), to which Rogers poked fun at in a recent interview with Vulture, saying that she’ll call herself a pop star as a joke because the notion is “silly” and asked the difference between a pop star and a rock star. “Is it guitars? ‘Cause I got guitars.” Whether Rogers is a pop star and whether Heard It In a Past Life is a pop album or not hardly seems to be the point, given that she has already proven with her sound and lyrics that she isn’t comparable to anyone else and doesn’t have an expiration date: Maggie Rogers is completely her own.

Since a lot of Heard It In a Past Life was recorded and released as early as 2016, the album really chronicles not only Rogers’ journey as a songwriter and performer, but as a young adult still navigating the road of growing up. A majority of the album’s songs, from the electro-folk origins of “Alaska” and “On + Off” to the ‘80s synth-influenced sounds of “The Knife” and “Retrograde,” reflect the cycle of perpetual self-change and growth that Rogers is narrating throughout—a cycle that one generally tends to face in their early twenties, and which Rogers puts into words in achingly poetic ways much older than she is.

Rating: 7/10

Jeffrey’s favorites from Heard It In a Past Life: “Give A Little,” “Overnight,” “The Knife,” “Alaska,” “Light On,” “Past Life,” “Retrograde,” and “Back in My Body”

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