Welcome to Hook & Reel, a series showcasing music that’s guaranteed to catch your ear.
Can we just gush about Julia Michaels for a quick moment?
And I’m not swooning over the fact that she’s literally the most in-demand songwriter in top 40 radio. I’m not going to go on and on about how she’s helped propel the careers of everyone from Fifth Harmony to Justin Bieber to Selena Gomez to Gwen Stefani to Britney Spears to both Nick and Joe Jonas to Hailee Steinfeld…and then some. I don’t care right now that she has a platinum selling single that’s been one of the most commercially successful hits from any pop artist in 2017. I’m not impressed over how she’s arguably the biggest breakout star of the year.
What blows my mind is how after a paragraph’s worth of obvious sexual metaphors and rather in-your-face allusions to her unmentionables in the first and second verses of her song “Pink,” she cuts all instruments from the track and drops to a whisper, breaking the fourth wall by hissing “there’s no innuendos, it’s exactly what you think – believe me when I tell you that he loves the color pink.” She immediately caps that all off with a triumphant groan that sounds like an elderly woman who just finished the world’s trickiest crossword puzzle, and then, if that wasn’t enough, she drives the track right into a fizzy guitar riff that, for all intents and purposes, should not belong in 2017 pop. It shouldn’t work, there’s no reason any of that insanity should be together in one chorus. Regardless, she did the damn thing, and she made it not only listenable but sound so good you can’t stop listening.
But that’s why Julia Michaels has been so unbelievably successful – she not only understands the mechanics of pop in the scope of what can and will pop off on the charts and on the radio but also has an eye for the direction the genre is going. Now that she’s established herself as a songwriter and pop star, she’s taking that opportunity to try to drive radio pop to where she thinks it should go – and frankly she’s on the mark. It’s why “Issues,” which is sluggishly down tempo and doesn’t even have an audible beat until the second verse, is still such a tour de force. It’s how she sat down with Selena Gomez and helped her make the most ambitious pop song of her career, taking a bass line from a 1977 rock record and using that as the foundation for a tune that sounds like Regina Spektor doing a bunch of coke and then spending a day in the studio with Taylor Swift.
That’s also why her debut release as a fully realized radio pop star, Nervous System, is a seven-song symphony of hooks and how-is-she-this-talented moments. Outside of “Issues,” there’s the groovy and flamboyant “Pink,” which we spoke about earlier. There’s also her newest single “Uh Huh,” which takes that feeling of when you decide to bite your lip at the boy across the bar after you’re four beers in and expands it into a three-minute song. The other four tracks tackle the tumultuous times in every relationship, whether it’s knowing you’re not good for this other person (“Make it Up to You”), trying to determine if you need to get out (“Worst in Me”), being at the precipice of saying goodbye (“Just Do It”), and looking back after the relationship ends (“Don’t Wanna Think”).
She’s pulled in her studio buddies Mattman & Robin to help create these new songs, and so they shine even when you look outside the incredibly smart songwriting. The lonely piano in “Don’t Wanna Think” is thunderous and commanding, and “Just Do It” is just too glossy and dancy to be weighed down by the desperation in Julia’s voice. The chopped vocals that fill in the blank space in “Make it Up To You” sound like Julia starting to apologize but catching herself, and the sugar-coated rush in the trop-house tinged chorus completes the track’s metamorphosis into her own “Sorry” (sans the Parris Goebel choreo). Mattman & Robin’s strongest work lies in “Worst in Me,” where the propulsive beat and orchestral synthesizers intertwine perfectly with the naked emotion in Julia’s top-notch vocal performance, elevating the track to Robyn-like levels of pop prowess. Any of these tracks could crush pop radio, so it’s safe to say Ms. Michaels will be a presence in top 40 pop for many many years to come. And thank god for that.
Spin Nervous System below: