Originally written and published by me for PopMatters.
When Maggie Rogers first impressed Pharrell Williams with her song “Alaska” in 2016 with a video that subsequently went viral, her fate as a gifted songstress was sealed. But although she dealt with a myriad of subjects on her folk/R&B-infused debut album, 2019’s Heard It in a Past Life, Rogers was unaware of the storm that the next few years would bring, like the rest of us. Moving back in with her parents in Maine following the burnout of her first headlining tour, she later enrolled in grad school at Harvard, began crafting her sophomore LP in New York City, and ultimately cut off her signature waist-length hair. The final result, Surrender, is a record that tackles ambition in all its glorious ability to make or break ourselves.
If Heard It in a Past Life was the culmination of the Maggie Rogers who broke through from indie folk artist to viral sensation, Surrender sounds more secure and less eager to prove itself. Forgoing folk influences for alt-rock and pop that conjures a musical cousin of Fiona Apple or Sheryl Crow, Rogers sounds acceptant of the places she’s been and the lessons they’ve taught her. But unlike other post-lockdown offerings from this year, the singer probably would have reached this place in her artistry regardless. “Who were you then?” she asks on “That’s Where I Am,” the lead single. “And who is she now?”
But make no mistake, the pandemic was nonetheless a contributing factor to Surrender’s creative process. In desperate need for some rest after her Best New Artist nomination at the Grammys in 2020, the first wave of lockdowns inevitably provided her with the few months’ respite she was yearning for. But thereafter, Rogers got busy writing songs: her second album is composed of songs written entirely between April 2020 and November 2021, a time she described as intense both professionally and personally. “[Surrender] is back in my private life, because there was nothing else going on,” she told Elle Canada. “It felt really empowering to tell the truth in that way, and to acknowledge the fact that I’ve grown up, and I’m going to talk about exactly what my life looks like.”
Which is what Surrender sounds like and what some of the strongest pop albums end up being: whoever and whatever the artist is into at that moment. Even with a wide range of influences anywhere from Shania to Alanis, the record sounds so distinctly Maggie Rogers in a way that separates her from the pressure of being the student who had her song called flawless by Pharrell. “Sick of the sound of self-importance / I fucked off for a month or two,” she proclaims. For an album that can’t help but be influenced by a particularly difficult period for mankind, Surrender sounds like the kind of authenticity we searched for on those quarantine walks.
“Music is the moment where I sort of stop thinking and just start being, and that to me is an act of surrender. That is sort of the line between the two,” she explained. The singer is also well aware of the backlash that can often accompany the transformation of becoming one’s true self in public, but she doesn’t care. “I think who I really am is who I am as an artist, especially on this record, because I think that I came back to songwriting in a way that feels as vulnerable and intimate as it did in high school or college, when I was making songs just for myself,” Rogers said. And that’s precisely who we hear on Surrender.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Surrender: “Anywhere With You,” “Be Cool,” “Shatter,” “I’ve Got a Friend,” and “Different Kind of World”