Three and a half years after a viral video of Pharrell reacting to her music made her one of pop’s most promising new figures overnight, Maggie Rogers is back with a new sound, a new haircut and a degree from Harvard. Sharing its name with her thesis in religion and public life, Surrender finds Rogers trying out a new pop-rock edge and trading in her folksy yet crisp electropop sound for fuzzy distortion. The title of the project ties directly to the lyrical themes, as Rogers muses on dealing with struggles both personal and global – lead single “That’s Where I Am” was written in the aftermath of the chaos of the 2020 US election – through dramatic catharsis, throwing inhibitions out the window, following her animalistic instincts and taking what she needs with an energy that she’s described as “feral.” While the resulting project suffers a little from the sophomore curse as Rogers strays from her obvious musical strengths, hearing her boundless and soulful singing voice pushed to its limits over the trendier wave of alt-rock makes for both welcome surprises and overwhelming experiences that leave me longing for the calmer energy of a track like “Fallingwater.”
The initial run of tracks contains some of the best combinations of Rogers’ old and new sounds. The project opens with “Overdrive,” which immediately introduces listeners to Rogers’ newfound fascination with crunchy guitars, but mixes it with her soulful vocal ad-libs. It feels like an odd backdrop for her vocals, but having one of the most impressive singing voices in the business will be able to override just about anything – her little breaks and falsetto flips, and of course, her absolute power when it comes to nailing some high belts, really showcase themselves here. It’s a pop-soul song at its core, blending her usual chopped-up vocals and a grungy guitar bit before the bridge in one of the more exhilarating moments. Single “That’s Where I Am” served as a natural transition between albums as well, as Rogers introduces the lyrical themes of a celebration of new love helping her to forget all of the strife of the world with a heartfelt dedication. Where her music was clean and crisp before, it now feels extremely raw and vulnerable – Rogers simply lets the emotions pour out freely, regardless of how insane or unhinged it makes her sound. The track “Want Want” is where that starts to go a little far – though it goes even further later on in the tracklist. With more buzzing distortion in the mix and some piano notes pounding away indiscriminately at random notes, Rogers being unhinged for the sake of it starts to feel uncomfortably performative, like the girls you knew in middle school who went above and beyond to prove that they were alternative and different. Still, the central melody of the track stands out once again as a vestige of her highly rhythmic older style.
There’s a lot of talk across the board of refusing to push down overwhelming rushes of feeling, letting emotion take charge and releasing inhibitions, letting the feelings manifest in behaviour that might be socially frowned upon but necessary for healing. That all begins with “Anywhere With You,” a track about running off into the wilderness with her new partner. Beginning with muted piano and steadily building up into a driving alt-rock kick drum, Rogers describes the steps of leaving society behind, right down to turning off the radio and ignoring pop culture as she leaves the city. The bridge feels like the album’s best instance of a technique that comes out much more later, where Rogers’ vocals transform to a squeaky staccato jerk as she lets the feral energy come out – here, it feels earned after all the storytelling build-up about how these activities calm her anxieties down. The tracks “Horses” and “Be Cool” are some of the most impressive vocal moments on the album, closing out the first half. Apparently recorded in a single take, “Horses” has an almost country edge with its acoustic strums, never feeling like its 5-minute runtime. Rogers compares her newfound freedom to horses running wild, a soaring vocal reflecting that as she bounces off a great low end that fills up the instrumental with warm tones. “Be Cool” contains another great hook set to a tambourine shaker as Rogers’ range is exemplified while describing her techniques for just laying low and chilling out for a while.
Kicking off the album’s second half, the track “Shatter” is the song that best exemplifies the album’s mission statement. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Likely to be divisive, the track contains some of the heaviest instrumentation sent through a muddy, blown-out filter while Rogers sings about wanting to cause destruction just to feel something. It’s an extremely hyperactive vocal performance that verges on being obnoxious, and you can hear her giving so much of herself that she runs out of breath before she finishes her phrases, throwing off the flow as her happy “alright!” ad-libs steadily turn into unnerving screams. It’s a cathartic exorcism of emotions, but it’s odd to hear someone so talented sounding this off-key. The following track “Begging For Rain” also feels a little like Rogers isn’t reaching her potential as a vocalist, but for an entirely different reason – it’s a low-key acoustic number with captivating and poetic lyrics, but it’s quite tedious musically, without much in the way of builds or melodic variation. “I’ve Got A Friend,” despite some uncomfortable oversharing that probably should have been expected, is a touching and adorable ode to the genuine friendships that have stuck with her along the way, some takes where Rogers and real friend Clairo mess around in the studio left in to further emphasize the album’s “raw” feeling as she laughs or moves away from the mic.
As far as ill-advised genre-jumping goes, it doesn’t get any worse than the track “Honey.” The mixing has some serious issues on this track, making it feel like the instruments are all drowning under a sea of static, while Rogers’ vocals have a bit of a rasp to them that makes it sound like she tired herself out after recording all the screaming on the other tracks here. Luckily, things finish strong with a couple more highlights. “Symphony” is another long track that earns it, with a bit of folksy energy with a kick reminiscent of her first big hit “Alaska.” Rogers’ tone is at peace as she describes nestling into her wholesome, calming life away from it all. “Different Kind Of World” closes it out with campfire-side acoustics as she reaffirms the album’s themes, wishing that everyone is able to find the peace that she has.
While it might not have been the sound that many were expecting, an album like Surrender is sure to gain Rogers a wave of new fans in the current musical landscape. A dramatic and cathartic project, it seems like we might be looking back on this one as a necessary and valued transitional step in her career as she works out who she really is.
Favourite Tracks: Horses, Overdrive, Be Cool, That’s Where I Am, Anywhere With You
Least Favourite Track: Honey