Maggie Rogers: Now That the Light Is Fading
By: Steven Norwalk
Few songs in the past year have generated more buzz than Maggie Rogers’ “Alaska.” The infectious electro-folk track first caught the attention of the music blogosphere after Rogers played it for legendary music producer and performer Pharrell Williams during an NYU master class. Pharrell deemed the song perfect, extolling its singularity and comparing Rogers to Stevie Wonder and the Wu-Tang Clan. The video of the master class quickly made its way around the internet, wetting the appetites of countless music fans eager to hear the song that stunned Pharrell. Since its debut, “Alaska” has been played over 3 million times on Soundcloud and received attention from dozens of music blogs. Given the massive amount of hype surrounding Rogers’ first single, the stakes are high for her first major label release, an EP entitled “Now That the Light Is Fading.” The ambitious five-song set attempts to build upon the success of “Alaska” by further developing that song’s rustic approach to electronic dance music. The resulting EP is an enticing, if somewhat inconsistent, debut from a young artist still finding her voice.
The EP opens with “Color Song,” an unassuming acapella piece accompanied by a tranquil nature sample. Rogers’ tight harmonies outline a simple melody while her impressionistic lyrics document the visual delights of an evening in the woods. Rogers has synesthesia, a condition that allows people to literally “hear” colors and “see” sounds. Her effortless melding of the lyrics’ vivid imagery with the aural textures of her nature sample is, in a sense, a musical manifestation of a synesthetic experience. Rogers’ multisensory approach to composition renders the sylvan atmosphere of “Color Song” especially immersive, and the song’s success as a mood piece depends in part on this seamless blending of the senses. “Color Song” also serves as an entry point into Rogers’ world, patiently leading the listener towards “Alaska,” the EP’s second track and its crowning achievement. “Alaska” is indeed excellent, an impressive feat of restraint that manages to make an arena-ready pop-song feel personal and moving. Rogers’ breathy falsetto infuses the song’s cathartic melody with emotional intimacy while her tasteful and inventive production choices lend the track its earthy bounce. It sets a high bar that is never quite met by the three songs that follow. Though the EP’s remaining tracks are not bad songs by any means, they all struggle to reach the heights graced with ease by “Alaska.”
“On+Off,” the derivative electro-pop number at the center of the EP, falls especially flat. Its chorus is laden with vague pop cliches, beginning with “Take me to that place where you always go” and ending with “You turn me on like ooh ooh ooh ooh.” Meanwhile the verses’ strained extended metaphor comparing a relationship to the ocean does little to make up for the chorus’ lack of originality. Rogers’ writing here is a far cry from the imagery of “Color Song” or the intimacy of “Alaska.” Instead of further developing her unique voice, Rogers succumbs to the impersonal tropes of mainstream radio that she so wisely avoided on the preceding two songs. Coming from an artist whose first single revealed such an idiosyncratic approach to pop craft, “On+Off” feels lazy.
Every track on “Now That the Light Is Fading” features at least one field recording somewhere in the mix. Rogers recently elaborated on this use of audio samples in an interview with Genius: “I hide a lot of [samples] in the production...I have a song where I have a tree falling to accent a bass line.” Unfortunately, the phantom presence of nature samples does little to alter the tone of the EP’s dance tracks - after all, if a tree falls in a Maggie Rogers song and no one is able to hear it, does it even make a sound? On the other hand, the more conspicuous samples often feel out of place. The nature loops on “On+Off” and “Better,” for example, feel aimless. They scan as failed attempts to differentiate these songs from typical pop fare, unsuccessful efforts to align them with the Maggie Rogers brand of folksy dance music. Whereas the spoons and jars in “Dog Years” and the moroccan drum sample in “Alaska” feel intrinsic to their songs’ respective textures, the nature samples on “On+Off” and “Better” feel forced. Although the EP is sometimes marred by these conflicting ambitions, it is still an impressive first release, and it proves that Rogers has more to offer beyond “Alaska.” She may still be refining her sound, but “Now That the Light Is Fading” is a promising start to what will likely be a long and fruitful career.