The quiet solitude of the pandemic made a certain subsection of musician really think about the relationship between music and the divine. Maggie Rogers, the Maryland-born singer-songwriter, thought more than most – while making Surrender, she enrolled in Harvard Divinity School. It is not a religious album, but one that searches for the sacred moments that emerge in chords and choruses, and the ecstasy of experiencing them in communion with others.
Surrender has its reverent songs, pieces that sound like someone looking for something greater than themself – “Begging for Rain” – but for the most part, it finds salvation in the sweat and joy of dance.
Rogers’ made-for-folk voice loops and soars around crunchy distortion and pummelling synth. On “Shatter”, she sings about “dancing like you’re under attack”, which is the precise feeling of needing to exorcise something from yourself when the song you love most comes on.
Though Rogers has always been positioned as a “pop girl”, there is a lot of alt influence on here. Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen and Julien Baker are all artists whose work it would not be surprising to hear had influenced her. “Overdrive” feels like it could have been an Olsen song; the crunch and wail of “That’s Where I Am” and the sharp country steel of many of the tracks lend the album a certain weight. Rogers has said that “Anywhere with You” was written to sound like the sort of song that would play over the end credits of a teen movie, and she has absolutely nailed it.
The high point of the album is the yearning, burning “Want Want”, with a fantastic falsetto middle eight that retreats and builds back into a chorus that deserves to close an ecstatic festival set.
After several years of quiet, it is reassuring to hear that pop still has some noise left in it: Surrender is an album that encourages you to throw your head back and shout.
Stream: Anywhere with You, Want Want
Hold on Baby
This week, we are blessed with not one but two great pop records. King Princess, the performance name of Mikaela Straus (descendant of a Macy’s co-owner who died on the Titanic), has crafted a fantastic hall of mirrors, an album that contorts itself around different kinds of love.
It is held together by King Princess’s voice – a breathy, Madonna-esque exhale that lingers like vapour from an e-cigarette. She occasionally rejects traditional structures, blurting lines out of time like a graduate of the PC Music school of songwriting, zipping from assured pulsing chorus to insecure flirtation on “Sex Shop”. “Too Bad” is an excellent pastiche of a 90s break-up song, while the strident “Let Us Die” could have been written by a pre-Scientology Beck.
The weak link is “Winter is Hopeful”, a smoky jazz bar bit about a relationship (King Princess sings to her actual girlfriend at one point), which feels like biting into a chocolate that turns out to be a prune.
As much as I hate to encourage the tortured artist misnomer, King Princess is at her best when she sings of break-ups and pain. On “Dotted Lines”, she sounds desperate singing, “I’m just trying to make it out”; on “Too Bad”, she sings, “My God, is it hard to be loved, but that’s life” with a resignation that makes you want to scoop her up and make her a hot tea. “Change the Locks” is an excellent break-up banger, cycling through the stages of grief from snake-charming sadness to stadium-sized anger to quiet resignation.
She ends with the cheery “Let Us Die”, a rock-adjacent song about a relationship on the rocks. Its vintage-mic vocal and pointed beat are strangely optimistic – sometimes you have to blow it all up and rebuild. At this unsettled time, it is a message for us all.
Stream: Too Bad, Cursed, Change the Locks