At an Ingrid Michaelson concert in 2008, I remember being surrounded by sugar-addled 10-year-olds with “BE OK” painted on their cheeks in tribute to the singer’s latest album cover and single. I had to smile when the same little girls snapped their heads in surprise when she covered Radiohead’s “Creep”. Michaelson’s sweet singles think “Be OK” and “The Way I Am” have always done her a bit of a disservice in obscuring the tortured soul at the core of her songwriting. She’s self-assured as a singer and writer, but in her dark lyrics she’s constantly reassuring herself that everything will work out.
So it is again on her fifth release, Human Again, a deeply hurt and inward-looking album that ultimately swells with a sense of hope. Part of Michaelson’s charm comes her intense focus on the small details of the immediate situation (“What if there’s always cups in the sink? What if I’m not what you think?”). She’s let go of some of that here. It reaches outside, beyond the domestic closeness of albums past. Of all her albums, Human Again sounds as if it’s had the most hands on it, spackling on layers of string accompaniment and other production frosting. Some of her trademark intimacy gets lost underneath these at times seam-bursting additions. But the lush production gives other songs on the album a polished feel. On “Blood Brothers” especially, the arc of orchestral muscle swoops down and propels the melody skyward.
Fortunately, Michaelson’s voice pins the album down to earth when the song calls for it. Her vocal abilities are as strong as ever, and as always, she’s never been afraid to sound vulnerable. When she swallows the final syllable on lines like, “Told me that he’d love me from the top to the floor/Wrapped me up in ribbons then he went for the door,” it’s as if she’s singing them directly into your ear.
Essential Tracks: “Blood Brothers”, “Ribbons”, and “Palm of Your Hand”