No Place in Heaven
(Republic / Casablanca / Virgin EMI)
US: 16 Jun 2015
UK: 22 Jun 2015
“I’ve gone identity mad!” Mika sings on his breakthrough single “Grace Kelly”, with falsetto in full blast. In that tune, which features on his 2007 debut disc Life in Cartoon Motion, the British chanteur depicts himself as someone constantly putting on the dressing of other great pop figures, with the titular Kelly and Freddie Mercury being the two most name-dropped. On his fourth solo outing, No Place in Heaven, released almost a decade after Life in Cartoon Motion, Mika announces he’s going to “Rio” to “find an alter ego”, suggesting, “Maybe I’ll be myself when I’m somebody else.” Is this vibrant musical personality really “identity mad” all these years later?
If No Place in Heaven is any indication, “identity mad” is far from the truth. Following the sickly sweet technicolor glow of Mika’s sophomore LP, The Boy Who Knew Too Much, and the promising but uneven misfire that is 2012’s The Origin of Love, No Place in Heaven is a work of significant maturation, a refining of a sound whose brilliance has only ever shone in patches throughout his still young discography. Even the solid Life in Cartoon Motion faltered in places due to its sugar-rush sonic, the strength of tracks like “Grace Kelly” and “Stuck in the Middle” notwithstanding. Although it’s not perfect, No Place in Heaven is easily the most consistent of Mika’s releases thus far.
This is the case for many reasons, notably because of Mika’s abandoning of flashy but ultimately foolhardy add-ons. The Origin of Love could well have been been his bounce-back from the sophomore slump that is The Boy Who Knew Too Much, but on too many songs he shoehorns in dance and electronic elements that detract from rather than enhancing the otherwise sharp pop fundamentals that Mika knows so well. Whether it’s the vocoder on “Make You Happy” or the regrettable EDM chorus of “Emily”, The Origin of Love is a good pop record marred by some awkward stylistic tics. Hearing excellent numbers like “Step With Me” and “Underwater”, one can’t help but wonder what Mika would sound like if he shed such gimmickry.
No Place in Heaven provides the answer. Right from the outset, with the fantastic single “Talk About You”, it’s clear that Mika is focusing on the groundwork of his songwriting: hooks, choruses, and melodies. Things like the phrasing on the pre-chorus lyric to “All She Wants” (“All that she wants are the stars and the moon”) and the ascending/descending vocal line on the infectious “Oh Girl You’re the Devil” show Mika’s immense pop aptitude, which has been evident on all his LPs but most pronouncedly here. The same goes for the musical theatre grandiosity that has long been one of Mika’s unique calling cards—that he has been called the bastard child of Freddie Mercury is all too apt—which is better than ever. Whether introspective (the title cut) or sorrowful (“Ordinary Man”), the Broadway vibes on No Place Like Heaven are palpable. Mika here continues in the aesthetic that has been unfolding over the course of his previous albums: his life as a musical.
Following that theme, it can be said that No Place in Heaven is the climactic moment of the musical’s book—that is, for now, at least. On the title track, “Oh Girl You’re the Devil”, and the bonus track “Promiseland”, Mika delves back into his Catholic upbringing, which became complicated when he discovered that his sexuality was anathema in his church environment. (After evading questions about his sexuality in interviews for years, as was his right, he came out publicly in 2012 as gay.) “I was a freak since seven years old / When cast away I felt the cold / Coming over me”, he laments on “No Place in Heaven”, ultimately worried that “there’s no place in heaven for someone like me.” While Mika told Neon Tommy at the time of The Origin of Love that he still identifies as Catholic, his angst over his religious background is understandable given that church’s intransigence on the issue persists to the present day. And unlike, for instance, The Boy Who Knew Too Much‘s “Toy Boy”, which coats a problematic case of child abuse in unbearably saccharine and whimsical music, here the gravitas of the songwriting is on par with the lyrical content. Those who aren’t keen on musical theatre’s grand gestures will likely find No Place in Heaven‘s swooning emotional highs and lows overwhelming, but, then again, those people probably don’t have Mika in their music collection to begin with.
For all of its successes, No Place in Heaven also does show that Mika still has plenty of wrinkles to iron out in his music, most noticeably in the lyrical department. “Hurts” puts a banal spin on the “sticks and stones” adage: “Nothing’s only words / That’s how hearts get hurt”. While the backing music on the track suggests a modern pop aria, the lyrics make it feel like an overinflated musical number for an after-school special. “Last Party”, although bolstered by some dramatic, sweeping strings, can’t escape from its clichéd chorus, a lyrical manifestation of EDM’s sonic: “If it’s the end of the world let’s party / Like it’s the end of the world / Let’s party.” Such an overt expression of what is already evident in Mika’s artistic persona can’t help but be cloying.
Still, these missteps, however noticeable, don’t detract from the achievement that Mika has attained in No Place in Heaven. His artistic presence has been easily identifiable since Life in Cartoon Motion, but at the same time he wasn’t so wrong to be worried about going “identity mad” on “Grace Kelly”. The Boy Who Knew Too Much overindulges in the sugary pop that Mika introduced with his debut, and The Origin of Love haphazardly attempts to over-correct for the full-blast color spectrum of his first two LPs. By contrast, No Place in Heaven is assured and mature, fully embodying Mika’s identity while trimming off the zaniness (Life in Cartoon Motion‘s “Lollipop”) and the ill-advised side ventures (the dance-y electronics on The Origin of Love). This artistic growth hasn’t come at the expense of playfulness; with tracks the unabashedly Broadway “Oh Girl You’re the Devil” and the vacation ode “Rio”, it’s impossible to not hear the echoes of the same chap who belted out “Grace Kelly” to the world in 2007. But it’s the touching self-reflection on songs like “No Place in Heaven” that balance out the syrupy moments that are laced throughout.
On “Good Guys”, Mika pays tribute to those that have influenced him as an artist: Cole Porter, Jean Cocteau, and “Bowie from my dreams” are all name-dropped, among many others. This tipping of the cap, however, doesn’t detract from Mika’s own artistic vision, just as the mention of “Grace Kelly” didn’t make his widescreen “Freddie Mercury for the 21st Century” aesthetic any less inviting back when it was first unveiled in 2007. Nearly a decade has gone by since Life in Cartoon Motion, and in addition to a bevy of unbelievably catchy pop tunes, Mika can now add No Place Like Heaven to his list of successes. This record is many things, but “identity mad” is not one of them; Mika hasn’t ever sounded more like himself than he does here.
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