First, I gotta get something off my chest: despite having released a glowingly wonderful new album, Mika has irritated me.
First, his current “Tiny Love Tiny Tour,” which kicked off last month and is on hiatus before resuming in November in Europe, featured a pathetically paltry three dates in the continental U.S. (there were two others in Montreal and one in Mexico City). Um, seriously? Your first U.S. tour in six-and-a-half years and you can only give us three dates? Not even a Miami show, where you actually live and recorded the new album? WTF?
I toyed with the idea of trekking up to New York for his show there, but am so glad I didn’t — he only played a paltry 70-minute set and completely ignored his last album, the 2015 masterpiece “No Place in Heaven.” He admitted in a recent Rolling Stone interview he used the no-frills U.S. dates to test material to unveil in a full-fledged production for the European dates. Um, gee, thanks. I mean, yeah, he’s a way bigger star in Europe so no surprise he keeps his eggs mostly in that basket, but this was such an egregious “fuck you” to his U.S. fanbase, it’s positively insulting.
It’s hard to be too upset however as his new album “My Name is Michael Holbrook” (***1/2 out of four), out last week, is almost as good as “Heaven” and its equally solid predecessor “The Origin of Love” (2012).
The 36-year-old openly gay pop singer/songwriter has hit an unfair sales slump. All his big hits were from his first two albums (“Life in Cartoon Motion” and “The Boy Who Knew Too Much”). They’re hook-laden ear feasts, too, but the last two albums and the new one feature a leaner, more sophisticated pop craftsman that sadly hasn’t caught on. Sales for “Origin” and “Heaven” paled in comparison to the first two records and yielded no major hit singles either here or abroad. “Popular Song,” an Ariana Grande duet, hit no. 87 on the Hot 100. His biggest hit, “Grace Kelly” was a worldwide smash in 2007 but only made it to no. 57 here.
Washed up at 36? What’s going on here? Thankfully, artistically that’s not the case.
Written entirely by Mika (in most cases with a bevy of co-writers) and a new production team (Mark Crew and Dan Priddy) “Holbrook” is a lean, glistening pop gem featuring deceptively tight hooks; logical, cascading chord progressions; witty lyrical observations; tons of trademark falsetto vocals; and an overall buttery, easy-on-the-ear sonic shellac that flirts at first with an impression of slightness but ultimately so bombards you with catchy choruses you succumb to its charms even when you try to keep it at bay.
Among the standouts are ‘70s-flavored “Paloma,” which starts off as a slightly out-of-tune piano ballad, kicks into a lite bossa nova shuffle, then builds into a finish with strings and choir; the Fleetwood Mac-ish “Sanremo” with its sunny, loungy vibe; and effortlessly breezy and slinky “Dear Jealousy.”
First single “Ice Cream” is a sexy, catchy ear worm. The party continues with “Tomorrow” (“who gives a shit about tomorrow?”), another falsetto-soaked charmer. Opening cut “Tiny Love,” is catchy but feels a little pretentious and Beatles-derivative. Much later in the album, “Stay High” keeps the party going with a watusi groove and Monkees-esque chorus.
Only occasionally does the album reveal flaws — “Cry” is a bit lame (but not horrific) and screams “B-side.” “Platform Ballerinas” gives things some unexpected rock crunch but feels jarring; Elton John-ish “I Went to Hell Last Night” is just OK and was “Tiny Love Reprise” really necessary? It’s different enough to be its own full cut but gets too big, overblown and soundtracky. A kids’ choir comes in, another character enters — it ultimately falters under its own pretentiousness.
That might sound like a lot of quibbling for a three-and-a-half-star review, but the stuff that thrills works so exceedingly well, you just kind of take it and run with it. It’s the musical equivalent of delicately curated but highly accessible textile exhibit — there’s a sense that a lot of these pieces could have come from thrift store finds, but there’s just too many of them and almost no junk that you know you were falsely lulled into thinking this was easy to assemble. No single element is particularly original but it’s so expertly executed, you sense a master pop excavator is continuing work at his peak powers.