By Jeff Walsh
"Life in Cartoon Motion," the debut album by Mika (released today in the UK, March 27 in the US), is the most assured, infectious first album to come out in quite some time. It is pure pop brilliance.
From the opening strains of "Grace Kelly" to the album's coda of "Happy Ending," Mika takes listeners on an aural journey through many styles of music. But each one is done with such authority, it never has the fractured OCD feel that plagues many albums that switch between many different musical styles.
"Grace Kelly" is the first track of the album, written as a kiss-off to music executives who wanted him to change his sound. The chorus of the song touches on his identity quest:
I try to be like Grace Kelly
But all her looks were too sad
So I try a little Freddie
I've gone identity mad!
When Mika sings "Freddie," in reference to Queen's Freddie Mercury, it sounds like Mercury's spirit was with him in the recording studio. It is strange to think one sung word could embody so much of Mercury's style, but it's all right there. One of my favorite things on the CD is the harmonic hum that punctuates the beat after he says Freddie. With Mika currently playing the "I don't want to talk about my sexuality with the press" game, it does make you wonder how long that can play out if his first instinct is to be like Grace Kelly and his second choice is Freddie Mercury. That news angle certainly can't last too long.
On the second track, "Lollipop," Mika switches things up, singing a song that sounds like Freddie Mercury doing a sexually-charged "Iko Iko" remake. This is one of those songs where the refrain (Sucking too hard on your lollipop, love's gunna get you down) seems to be entirely sexual, except it doesn't really work when taken literally.
"My Interpretation" is a folksy power ballad of a song that showcases his ability to play something more traditional and radio-friendly, rather than witty wordplay and wild falsetto.
"Love Today" (currently featured in a Motorola (RED) commercial) is when Mika starts to up the beats-per-minute, and delivers a rocking song that evokes the Scissor Sisters, in the sense of bringing the party, trotting out the falsetto, and being able to write a song that is good as it is fun.
"Relax, Take It Easy" is my version of heaven at a dance club. Building on the chord structure of Cutting Crew's "I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight," (an old song few people on this site probably know, heh) the song pushes Mika further onto the dance floor, with a simple chorus that permeates your brain and demand repeat listening, and (fruitless) online hunts for dance remixes.
"Any Other World" slows down the pace to bring Mika into ballad territory. Again, it seems like I should have whiplash with all the styles and tempos, but for some reason, I am completely on board. "Billy Brown" brings a Beatlesque take on storytelling, with a modern spin:
Oh Billy Brown had lived an ordinary life.
Two kids, a dog, and then the cautionary wife.
While it was all going accordingly to plan
Then Billy Brown fell in love with another man.
"Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)" finds us back on the dance floor, trotting out a tale of zaftig admiration. "Stuck In The Middle" brings it back to Mika and the piano and little accompaniment, showing that all of the flights of fancy he takes throughout the CD are intentional and not window dressing to mask any lack of talent.
And the last song on the album, "Happy Ending," really gives you that sense that only great albums accomplish, making you feel like you are completing a journey. With its background singers starting the song with the chorus, the song's slow build provides a framework for Mika's soaring voice and luscious string section, climbing to a gospel rapture before closing on the background singers bringing the song down with the simple chorus on which it all began.
A hidden track afterward evokes a deconstructed Radiohead tune, with spare piano, Mika singing way up in his falsetto, but still managing to sneak in lyrics from "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."
I can't say enough good things about Mika. This is clearly the album every other album in 2007 needs to dethrone in my book.