It’s pretty staggering to note in retrospect when pop acts — or any artist — were on great runs.
Realizing, for example, that Fleetwood Mac released “Fleetwood Mac,” “Rumours,” “Tusk” and “Mirage” successively or that Joni Mitchell released “Blue,” “For the Roses,” “Court and Spark, “Hissing of Summer Lawns” and “Hejira” in a legendary ‘70s streak, simply boggles the mind. It’s harder to recognize when it’s happening, but glimpses of this kind of thing are discernible in contemporary pop. With the June release of his fourth album “No Place in Heaven,” pop wunderkind Mika is on that kind of a masterpiece-dropping fever cycle. It’s also his gayest album yet.
It would be tempting to think, based on album opener and first single “Talk About You,” that we’re in for a slighter, more throwaway affair than the last album (released in 2012) which opened with an epic bang on the title cut “Origin of Love.” But that would be a mistake as this opener, though catchy, turns out to be the most disposable thing here. A treasure trove of near Beatles-caliber pop magic awaits on the rest and makes for a very strong winning streak when considered alongside “Origin” and 2009’s “The Boy Who Knew Too Much.” Long-time co-producer Greg Wells (Adele, Katy Perry, Pink) returns for much of the proceedings.
What makes it so great? It’s a masterpiece of tone balance both lyrically and musically. Mika’s often earnest yet manages never to lose his sense of humor. The cuts are tight and stylistically varied with nary a dud in the batch.
Having grown more comfortable in his gay skin — he came out officially in 2012 though he’d suggested openness to male lovers a few years’ prior — and even, at just 31, matured as a songwriter, this album and “Origin” have a gravitas lacking on the first two. Refreshingly, his material has lost none of its fun along the way. Even on ponderous torchy songs like “Ordinary Man,” it’s never heavy handed.
Queer themes abound and provide the album’s strongest moments from the cheeky “All She Wants,” (about a mom who straight-washes her son to the point of wishing he were someone else entirely) to the tightly hooked shuffle “Rio” to the highly syncopated, tough-yet-slinky bonus cut “Promiseland” where he “lived my life as the good boy I was told I should be/prayed every night to a religion that was chosen for me.”
For a guy who sang euphorically of “teenage dreams in a teenage circus” (on “We Are Golden”), to find him grappling with larger questions of faith and marriage is startling at first, but works.
A trio of cuts stand above the rest: with a sly reference to the Paula Cole hit “Where Have all the Cowboys Gone,” Mika wonders “where have all the gay guys gone” on “Good Guys” while a backing outfit that sounds like the Polyphonic Spree sing lines like “we are all in the gutter” with the same joyousness you hear on “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” “Good Wife” finds him playing consoler to a straight guy he’s crushing on whose wife ran out. It’s both funny and poignant.
The finest moment is the tender prayer of the title track in which the singer, over a noodling piano figure, sings of “being cast away” by the church and begging God to “learn to love me anyway.” It’s a sophisticated lament to which many burned by religion will relate. The melodies are memorable and first rate throughout — they’re ear worms first, meditations on life and love second.
It only takes one bad gay singer/songwriter pop album to make you realize how easily these kinds of outings can backfire and how truly rare the great ones are. If you’ve never heard of, say, Matt Zarley for one, thank your lucky stars (queer unctuousness run amok). There are legions of others who are decent: the Tom Gosses and Jason & deMarcos of the world. Rufus Wainwright is clearly talented but about as much fun as a Good Friday service. Mika is in a league of his own.