The pop music of the 2010s is not a place where classic singer/songwriter types hold any special advantage. When they do arise, it’s often after serving an apprenticeship as behind-the-scenes hit crafters before being offered their own record deals — think: Bruno Mars, Sia, Frank Ocean, Ne-Yo, Brandy Clark, and Kesha. Not that this is the only period of history when a songwriter turned out to be better than the stars she was writing for, as any Carole King fan could tell you.
Whether you consider it a new tradition or an ancient one, the latest to rise through those ranks is 23-year-old Julia Michaels, who had a No. 1 song as a co-writer with Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and has credits on recent albums by Selena Gomez, Britney Spears, and Gwen Stefani. Having had as much success as a gun-for-hire as she has doesn’t necessarily augur for a distinctive voice. But “Nervous System,” her debut EP, reveals Michaels as a gifted enough singer and confession-inclined enough songwriter that leaving out the middleman was definitely the way to go. Her track record isn’t bad, but she’s even more promising than her resume.
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Of that list of crossover artists above, the one Michaels most resembles is Kesha, especially if you listen to her second single, “Uh Huh,” recently released as the follow-up to her breakout hit, “Issues.” The playful, taunting lift that Michaels has in her voice as she speaks the title phrase is right out of the “Tik-Tok” songbook, as is her penchant for drifting from a spoken-word aside like that back into some real singing… not to mention their mutual facility with four-letter words. You could also think of her as an edgier, craftier, less cloying Meghan Trainor; at least, it doesn’t seem like she’ll get on our nervous systems quite so fast.
“Issues” is the single that broke her through this spring, feeling even more ubiquitous in pop than its No. 11 Hot 100 peak position might indicate. It’s not the best of the seven songs on “Nervous System,” but it does establish Michaels’ sweet spots as a writer — namely, giving good articulation to the ambiguity of a half-dysfunctional young relationship that’s on the bubble. In “Issues,” she’s making a case for soldiering on with it (the kicker: “Yeah, I got issues, and one of them is how bad I need you”), even as she’s issuing threats about reciprocating any bad behavior. If you’re 25, you probably listen to the song and think: Hope these crazy kids make it! If you’re 40, your response will be: Dump each other now.
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Actually, Michaels is way ahead of any of us nervous Nellies who think the dynamic described in “Issues” sounds a little dubious. She’s less hopeful about how it’ll turn out in “Worst of Me,” admitting, “I know we could fix these kinks, but the worst in me doesn’t want to work on things.” “Make It Up to You” has her declaring, “I could apologize but that’s not my style… I wish I could be that tender, stable girl that you want, but I’m not.” She’s not afraid to make herself sound like a piece of work, which goes a long way toward making this a pretty strong piece of work.
Not every song is about the relationship is sturm und drang. “Pink,” the closest thing to a pure dance track here, is an ode to genitalia Prince would have approved of in his dirty-minded heyday. Michaels even has the instrumentation drop out for a few bars in the chorus so she can whisper, “There’s no innuendos, it’s exactly what you think.” You’ve got to appreciate a writer who can let herself get so aroused in song that she denounces her own capacity for metaphor.
Production plays a big part in the EP’s success. “Issues,” with its real or faked plucked-violin sound, was helmed by the star team of Stargate and Benny Blanco. That works, but the five tracks produced by Mattman & Robin are even sharper and more fun, offering ammunition for those of us who secretly believe that all modern pop music should have Swedes involved somehow. They do a superb job of combining contemporary beats with non-amplified piano and guitar; “Uh Huh” opens with a whole verse’s worth of acoustic picking-and-strumming before the electronics kick in, but it sounds like pop music from the first note.
The programmed elements are as essential as the organic ones, though. When Michaels goes solo-acoustic for a self-produced closing ballad, you immediately miss the big beats and slicker arrangements of the material that preceded it. Not that Michaels lacks the natural talent to pull off an unaccompanied tune, but these are songs that really have a need for Swede.