Maggie Rogers’ new album Surrender explores the spiritual seduction of giving in. By Michael Sun.
Surrender by Maggie Rogers
Maggie Rogers’ best songs sound like prayers. Often they begin with a whisper – a hushed twang, a vocal sample repeated like an incantation – before surging upwards in feeling and volume with an unexpected rapture.
Her breakout single, 2016’s “Alaska”, sets the tone with little more than a squirming synth, over which she details the wonders of the natural world in the aftermath of heartbreak. Then, without warning, the beat drops. Her voice floats towards the heavens as she sloughs off her ex-lover while traipsing through the snow. “Leave me be / I’m exhaling,” she rhapsodises, her breath crystallising in the cold. From the icy tundras, she emerges reborn.
Rogers’ tale by now is well known. The abbreviated version: “Alaska” went viral in a clip where Rogers, then 22, a fresh NYC transplant from a rural upbringing in Maryland, plays the track to an increasingly stupefied Pharrell Williams in a college workshop. That narrative might sound vapid – the small-town singer–songwriter plucked from obscurity by industry bigwigs, the Josie and the Pussycats school of pop star – were it not for Rogers’ own reticence, which resists the starry-eyed fairytale for something earthier.
She had already written two albums – one in high school, the other at college – that tended towards the macabre, spinning Gothic fables of buried bodies and rotting teeth over folksy foot stomps like a deranged Mumford & Sons. On her first major label outing, 2019’s Heard It in a Past Life, these weirder sensibilities chafe against a staid indie pop production. Tales of panic attacks and stage fright – Rogers’ dark fantasies made literal through an agoraphobia induced by unexpected fame – are propped up by overly slick electronic flourishes. It’s less a fully realised record than a battle of wills: the sound of an artist clinging on to the shreds of their self as they are thrust into a spotlight they never really desired in the first place.
On her latest album, she gives in. Its title, Surrender, is apt. In an early trailer, she unspools this word into a series of feral urges: “Do you ever want to bite?” she teases over a screech of guitar. In an accompanying poem she writes, “Sink your gums into a shoulder. / Of a lover. / Of a day. / Of a year.” It’s slightly mawkish – her degree, after all, included an English major – but it’s tempting, inviting us to live deliciously regardless of the consequences.
If “Alaska” was Rogers’ paean to her own fortitude, then Surrender is an admission that perhaps those defences were illusory. She capitulates to both love and fame, no longer interested in shielding herself from their pitfalls. In the video for the album’s lead single, “That’s Where I Am”, she struts out of an apartment as if emerging from a long hibernation, shedding her insecurities and vamping down the hallway in a green boa. The mood is amplified again in the follow-up single “Want Want” and its sweaty, ecstatic clip in a karaoke bar. Rogers, complete with fairy floss wig, writhes on stage, pulsating with the energy of the throng surrounding her.
Both songs are anthemic in a way Rogers’ music has rarely sounded, brimming with gravelly guitars and crunchy snares whose closest analogue is the petulant snarl of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. In the wake of her breakout album, profile after profile lauded Rogers’ supposed humility – The New Yorker called it her “I’m-just-dancing-in-my-bedroom stage presence”, while cult magazine Office identified her “sincerity of sorts” as key to her idiosyncrasy. But a glimmer of bombast submerged just beneath the surface rises to the fore on Surrender – an album constructed for stadium tours filled with the shriek of a rabid crowd, each song a psalm writ large.
“Psalm” is the word Rogers might use, too. Like most people, she took stock of her career during the past two years; unlike most, she enrolled in a master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School, where she eventually turned in a thesis – also called “Surrender” – that probes in part “the spirituality of public gatherings”. The course required a performance; she fulfilled it one afternoon this year, playing to a sizeable crowd at Coachella.
Despite its New-Age connotations, the spirituality Rogers refers to runs in two directions: fans who deify their beloved musicians and artists who give themselves wholly to their audiences. Vulnerability is a form of devotion – proof that a musician is willing to reach through the surface of celebrity and exhume something more profound, more primal. That vulnerability emerges on Surrender in the form of lovesickness, an affliction that teeters between giddying and nauseating.
Through the album, romance is paired with piety. “I don’t really care if it nearly kills me / I’ll give you the world if you ask me to,” Rogers sings on “Shatter”, her voice stretched taut by anguish. It’s more explicit on “Anywhere With You”, where the fantasy of the open road collides with the tempestuous rush of a new crush. “I’m praying to the headlights like I pray to you,” she declares, joined by an iridescent chorus of “oohs”. But there’s a slippage between devotion and desperation. As the track crescendos, the crush curdles into frenzy. The chorus becomes a yowl: “All I’ve ever wanted is to make something fucking last!”
There are moments that aren’t quite so cathartic. “Symphony”, a slow burn about an obsessive love, is reminiscent of Heard It in a Past Life’s sonic mishmash, built around a looping piano note with all the grating repetition of a dial tone. Some tracks are simply too twee. Rogers tries to equate platonic love with romance on “I’ve Got a Friend” but the track, with its noodling chords, ends up demoting friendship to the level of childish goofing instead. Meanwhile, “Different Kind of World” closes the album with a strangely sycophantic whimper, calling for global peace over lazy acoustic strums that are straight out of a throwaway charity single.
These are misfires, but they barely register in the epic scale of Surrender’s peaks. How could the prosaic ever compare with the divine? At its noisiest, Surrender evokes the kind of heady euphoria that comes with submitting to forces greater than yourself – the glorious relief of relinquishing personal responsibility in favour of an all-consuming faith, misplaced or otherwise. In another life Rogers could be a cult leader; I’m glad she’s a musician instead.
“It all works out in the end,” she sings on “That’s Where I Am”, “Even boulders turn into sand”. It’s not quite a guarantee – more a last-ditch affirmation for these turbulent times. Like a prayer, it might ward off life’s catastrophes – if only our belief is strong enough.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as "Yielding to the divine".
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