Massively successful pop songwriter turned solo artist Julia Michaels has finally released her first collection of songs in the wake of hit single “Issues”. Ever since I heard that track and follow-up single “Uh Huh”, I’ve been waiting rather impatiently for more of that magic we get when combining her dark and incredibly personal lyrics with that dynamic flutter of a voice. However, while Michaels does deliver 7 very solid pop songs here, I can’t help but feel like she already gave up many of her greatest songs to other artists.
The new songs here are more radio-friendly, without as much of a dimension of uniqueness and creativity that tinged the others. Still, despite being frontloaded with singles, Michaels demonstrates why she is one of the most exciting new artists to come out of 2017 on her Nervous System EP.
Producers Mattman & Robin, who have been rather hit-or-miss this year and are known for grandiose and in-your-face pop tracks like DNCE’s “Cake By The Ocean” and Selena Gomez’s “Hands To Myself”, handle the majority of the tracks here. It’s a somewhat surprising choice even with the success of “Uh Huh” – “Issues” is handled by more proven hitmakers Benny Blanco and Stargate, and what might be the best new track here in “Don’t Wanna Think” was actually done by Michaels herself. The track is a stripped-down piano ballad where Michaels lays her emotions bare, struggling with moving on in the wake of a break-up even though she knows it would be violently destructive to both of them if she went back.
We all know “Issues” by now, and it still stands out as one of the greatest songs of the year. I love a good slow build in a song, and as we ascend from that simple melody of the pre-chorus into the dramatic conclusion, all the motifs brought up over the course of the song colliding into each other perfectly, it reminds me why I fell in love with the track in the first place.
Follow-up track “Uh Huh” is almost as good just due to the fact that it doesn’t sound like a typical pop song in the same way. The track goes to a lot of unexpected places, beginning with a neatly picked acoustic riff and then hitting us with that distorted chorus as Michaels’ voice turns into a high-pitched squeak and crams in more syllables than should ever fit into a line. The two tracks seem like the least likely of these seven to be serviced to pop radio, and yet, here we are. The refreshing nature of these tracks is quickly removed for some more standard fare.
Despite how novel an artist Michaels is, many of the new songs here fall flat on the actual structure of the song. After how dynamic her first two singles were, tracks like “Worst In Me” just sound like a boring pop song. Something about the melody in the chorus never sticks. It might be due to how upbeat the track is juxtaposed with such bleak lyrics from Michaels – it feels like with how much her voice is capable of emoting, the track should be a lot sadder. A clicking beat and some bright piano chords speed the track along, and it feels like the production drowns out her voice at times.
“Make It Up To You” is another very upbeat and electronic track that feels strangely underwritten for a Michaels song. The instrumentals need to be giving Michaels a lot more room for her voice to breathe. It comes with enough surprises and quirks to steal the show every time. “Pink” seems like it’s trying to achieve the same effervescent and flirty quality of her first two singles, but the idea isn’t executed nearly as well. Numerous times in the track, all music cuts out to allow Michaels to deliver two lines of the chorus in a full whisper. This might have worked if they only did it once, but as it stands it kills the energy of the track.
Michaels is a songwriter at heart, and this is where she shines. Many lyrics on this project are very personal, with blunt and specific musings on relationships gone disastrous. As she told us, both of them have issues. She comes across as so much more real than most, especially when she drops lines that are simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and depressing. She asks if he remembers when he “could go out with [his] female friends and I’d be totally fine”, or dreads the “seven texts and three calls” she knows she’s going to send.
Many of these tracks tackle some pretty dark topics in this way, all mostly coming down to Michaels’ criticisms of her own behaviour. She realizes that most of her problems actually stem from her own attitude. Newer tracks “Don’t Wanna Think” and “Just Do It” stand out because there is the least distraction from Michaels’ delivery of these emotions in the way only a brilliant songwriter can.
Can you imagine if Michaels had kept a track she wrote like Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar” or Ed Sheeran’s “Dive” to herself? She’d be spectacular, and her full portfolio of work shows so much more promise than this EP has to offer. I’ll just get back to playing “Issues”.
Favourite Tracks: Issues, Uh Huh, Don’t Wanna Think
Least Favourite Track: Make It Up To You