If the title of Mika’s third studio LP The Origin of Love gives you pause, you’re well within reason. This is the same guy who wrote a song about curvaceous women hitting the clubs with diet Cokes in hand (“Big Girl [You are Beautiful]” from Life in Cartoon Motion) and a Disney-ready ditty about being a “Toy Boy” (from The Boy Who Knew Too Much). Mika may write music for a good time, but philosophical exploration is far from his forte, especially considering that even when he gets into primo ballad territory he just ends up copying Journey. Love is a topic that has befuddled the likes of Søren Kierkegaard and Emmanuel Levinas, both of whom centered their respective philosophies on the indefinable concept. Those two are lofty voices to live up to within the broad spectrum of people who have examined love; it doesn’t become easier when the field is narrowed to the musical realm.
For while Mika isn’t the chanteur one would go to for that soul-grabbing rumination on love, pop music, and indeed the pop album itself, is an excellent place for such exploration. Humankind has expressed its wishes and desires in lyric for millennia. Bland stuff like “We Are Never Getting Back Together” may dominate the charts now, but pop and rock have a storied history of talented lyricists. In fact, the love song is perhaps the most prominent strand in pop music’s DNA. If music, or art in general, is meant to serve as a mirror for a culture’s values and beliefs, it is inevitable that people will sing of love in forms both poignant and crude.
But, of course, the title The Origin of Love isn’t a signpost for a concept album. It’s a thought-provoking title that nonetheless is tied to the guy whose biggest hit is “Grace Kelly,” the Queen-esque bombast of which has become the defining trait of his career. Being philosophically minded, I naturally took the name of the record a lot further than it ought to be taken. However, while this isn’t Mika’s sudden turn towards really poignant lyricism, it is a step back from the garish, cartoony excess that made The Boy Who Knew Too Much the biggest of sophomore slumps. His debut Life in Cartoon Motion was admittedly one sugary sweet piece of bubblegum pop to chew on (there is an innuendo-heavy song titled “Lollipop”), but with his sophomore outing he went overboard, the Jackson Pollack splashes of technicolor so vibrant it was nauseating.
The paradigm shift that is The Origin of Love‘s sonic flavor is made evident right from the get-go with the title track. It’s a much-appreciated step back from the FAB! opening cuts that led his past two LPs (“Grace Kelly” and “We are Golden,” respectively), and it wisely swerves away from the mistakes made by The Boy Who Knew Too Much. What’s striking, though, is how little the rest of the record sounds like the title track. The single most prevailing sonic on The Origin of Love is the type of club-ready pop that just begs for several remix EPs; I can already hear the wheels Tiësto’s mind spinning. Many of these songs could be ordinary pop hits, but are loaded with gimmicks that don’t do any service to the music. “Make You Happy” is a pretty nice, string-accented ballad until a distracting vocoder is given center stage in the chorus. “Stardust” is a wonderful showcase for Mika’s falsetto, but recycled synth textures reduce it to nothing more than background music to a dancefloor. Paradoxically, this album finds Mika at his most danceable and his most stately; had this been his debut LP, Mika still would have been perceived as a “happy” pop artist, but in comparison to his past releases this material loses its pep due in large part to the absence of the Freddie Mercury glam that made him such a fresh breath of air with Life in Cartoon Motion.
One has to wonder if this is how Mika really views maturation. While the garish excess of The Boy Who Knew Too Much was problematic, the ebullient pop of “Grace Kelly” is part of what made Mika the minor sensation he was with his debut; it’s hard to imagine him without recalling that technicolor brand of pop. With The Origin of Love it sounds like he’s sacrificed that youthful glee in his songwriting for club anthems that aren’t really all that mature. Being overzealously zany is a problem, but Mika doesn’t solve his weaknesses merely removing that energy. He hasn’t abandoned his past silliness—the tacky gold splashes on the otherwise stoic sleeve art are evidence enough of this—but it’s as if he’s afraid to even give a little slack to his peppier tendencies. This is a record that gives with one hand what it takes away with the other: it’s proof that Mika isn’t content to be a one-trick pony, but it’s also an indication that he isn’t quite sure what to do once the extravagant color has faded away.