Album: The Origin of Love
Label: Casablanca (US), Island/Barclay/Universal (Europe)
It seems clichéd to describe Mika’s third album as mature, especially given that the latter is often a horrible euphemism for boring, but that’s exactly how The Origin of Love comes across. Stripped of many of the singer’s more flamboyant musical pyrotechnics, it’s incredible muted, largely underplayed, and enveloped in a dazzling aura of wonder and surprise. Albums that fixate on love tend to come in this pastel-coloured mould, sounding sweet and wholesome and enraptured with the twinkling magic of this new and wondrous sensation. It makes for pleasant listening – possibly even compelling listening if one is caught in the same throes of delight – but also for something that’s incredibly bland. The pristine sense of delight nurtured throughout this record is in keeping with its theme but it seems to neuter many of the effervescent tweaks that one has come to associate with Mika. There’s a sense of being permanently in some kind of delirious daze, dreamlike and joyous, which is all very enchanting but means The Origin of Love never actually comes alive.
There is a great deal of literal colour to this. Although the singer described it as “more simplistic” and “less layered” pop during its production, it’s arguable that there’s actually a more dizzying array of effects, instrumentals, and add-ons here than in much of his earlier work. The problem is that this does nothing to enliven it or inject the ruthless catchiness that permeates the likes of “Love Today” or “Kick Ass (We Are Young).” The first few songs are incredibly pretty and very enjoyable, but also somewhat disposable. “Origin of Love” is playful and endearing; “Lola” is sunny, heartfelt, and happy. “Stardust” has the same captivated air and is laden with hyperactive synth effects to evoke the cascading emotions. These are very pleasingly romantic pop songs, but I’m not sure there’s enough to really absorb or hold interest. By the time the artificial refrains of “Make You Happy” have faded out, there is a palpable sense that Mika needs to up his game.
Conversely however, and notwithstanding the above, The Origin of Love seems much more personal and from the heart and in that sense, may be more representative of Mika as an artist. Some of its songs are real standouts – sublime meditations on heart, memories, and experiences with organic instrumentation and a genuine air of poignancy. “Underwater” is led by a longing, driven piano line and suitably wistful vocals, which just about hold it together when it descends into a more overbearing chorus. The singer really hits his stride on “Heroes,” a soft and moving track that manages to err just on the right side of schmaltz. It’s neither formulaic nor predictable and features a rather hopeful twist on desperation. Mika’s vocals are exemplary throughout but it’s on tender, unsweetened tracks such as these that they’re really allowed to flourish. The fluffy enhancements of some of the other tracks seem to detract from his natural appeal as a singer, obscuring him in needlessly frothy detail. The Origin of Love also features his first French-language track, “Elle me dit” (a bonus track on the French version, though its Anglophone equivalent is included as “Emily”). This ties the record to his early life and influences in a manner that befits the album’s title, and is also one of the finest songs on here – a genuinely infectious, playful, fun-loving track with a killer chorus.
There are some experiments with guest vocals and sampling – “Step with Me” has a female accompaniment but is one slow-burning contemplative piece too many, while “Popular Song” samples the track “Popular” from Wicked (performed by Priscilla Renea) but moves far too slowly. The latter in particular misses the mischievous bounce of the original. On tracks such as these, it feels like things have been so finely polished that the little fleck of dust or dirt that would have given them an edge has been too thoroughly removed.
The Origin of Love is a good album, but for an artist as strapping and inventive as Mika it feels a little like a misstep. Exploring a more introspective and careful style is interesting for him and does provide the occasional dulcet reward, but too much life has been allowed to seep out of this record. It’s aesthetically lovely and his vocals are fantastic, but the overall result is disappointingly tame.
Review written by Grace Duffy