Sunday morning, 20 September. Inside the Arts Section of The New York Times is a half-page ad for Mika and the release of The Boy Who Knew Too Much. The awards he rounded up for his debut album, Life in Cartoon Motion (2007), are listed with the same graphic used for a movie’s film festival accolades. Mika’s honors from the UK, France, and Germany reside under the headline: “Over 5 Million Albums Sold Worldwide”.
Beside the ink is a modest, Times-appropriate portrait of the artist. Looking very much like the title character of his new album, Mika’s stance connotes a certain savvy. Eurythmics comes to mind: “Some of them want to use you/Some of them want to be used by you”, and I can’t help but think about how that applies to Mika: a young, handsome star suddenly catapulted to worldwide fame and susceptible to all kinds of sycophants, hangers-on, and gossipmongers. A clue to the verity of my presumption is found on the cover of the new album. Monsters replace the doves that flew benevolently across the illustration on his debut.
Amidst the claws and fangs that appear on Mika’s bedroom wall is a poster of a clown. Since hearing “We Are Golden”, the first single from the album, I’d been trying to determine what Mika’s music evokes and what the artist reminds me of—a clown, specifically of the Emmett Kelly variety. The lyrics to the song—“Running around like a clown on purpose”—led me to that conclusion but the sentiment goes far deeper than hijinks. Inherent in Mika’s music is a certain sadness that clowns like Kelly poignantly embodied.
“Dr. John”, for example, finds the artist undone and seeking refuge in his mother’s arms while merrily marching along to the song’s “Yellow Submarine”-like beat. He obscures the misery through an arrangement that can’t help but make the listener smile. Similarly, he inverts a frown on “Blue Eyes”. “Sorrow is so peculiar”, he sings. Though he’s addressing another person, I know he’s on intimate terms with those words. This time, he’s dressed them up with Latin rhythms that conjure a seaside circus on parade.
It’s here, at the album’s midpoint, that the critic in me wants to hi-five (or five-star) Mika. Halfway into The Boy Who Knew Too Much, Mika is batting six for six into his technicolor outfield. By track 13, the last track, I want to congratulate Mika on exceeding the pop-tastic qualities of his debut. He’s created the consummate pop album for 2009, seemingly on his own terms and devoid of tired formulas. With 21st century pop defined by the committee-made melodies of American Idol-winner debut albums, The Boy Who Knew Too Much arrives as a thrilling antidote.
Each song is a different door to Mika’s imagination. The sunny teenage rebellion of “We Are Golden”, the saloon-like sway of “Lover Boy”, and the somnambulant tones of “By the Time” are all extensions of Mika’s re-imagined reality. “Rain” sprouts from the same Eurodisco garden as “Relax (Take It Easy)” on Life in Cartoon Motion and will keep the glo-stick wavers content through the imminent chilly autumn nights.
“Blame It on the Girls”, the catchiest among a catchy bunch, is a sly character study about a man who has everything—a gold credit card, good looks, the attention of both men and women—but is unhappy. Again, Mika can craft a tuneful melody of misery better than anyone and here, he furnishes one of the most infectious refrains on the album.
“Blame it on the boys who keep hitting on you” is part of that memorable refrain and brings sexuality into the equation as part of what yields some of Mika’s clown tears. In “Toy Boy”, Mika plays the part of a wind-up toy with a heart of a gold who is abandoned by a boy whose mother disapproves of her son’s attachment towards the toy. “Had a boy once who loved me/Now he’s so afraid of me”, Mika sings as the title character. The jolly flute and oboes bely the sadness. I think back to the title of the album. What Mika knows and what he expresses in his lyrics, albeit sometimes between the lines, is that too often love is unrequited or misunderstood, especially the love shared between two boys. This fact is what gives Mika’s songs a subtext of sorrow even when they contain the most sanguine melodies.
Hopefully, his third outing will be about a boy whose heart mends. It would be nice to see the doves fly once again.