After making waves throughout the UK and the rest of Europe earlier this year with Life in Cartoon Motion, Beirut-Paris-London native Mika rides the recent crest of “next-big-thing” artists from the UK to splash onto U.S. shores. If you’ve heard Mika’s memorable first single, “Grace Kelly”, you already know he sounds a lot like Freddie Mercury and wears the influence like a badge of honor, even name-checking the late front man of Queen in the first verse. Mika vacillates between the affected theatricality of Mercury’s full-throttled voice and his own strong falsetto on “Grace Kelly” where he earnestly implores “Why don’t you like me?” no less than 12 times. So Mika wants to be liked and he’ll go “identity mad” until the object of his affection (audience? record company? love interest?) takes notice. Mika’s natural affinity for pop songwriting and impressive vocal talents ensures that he will be noticed even without the obvious influences that populate Life in Cartoon Motion.
Mika masterminds a dozen tracks on Life in Cartoon Motion that are catchy as hell, if you’re in the mood for sprightly pop. If you’re not in the mood, spending time in Mika’s cartoon motion world is like drinking six shots of espresso after a 72-hour bout of sleep deprivation. In fact, if ever an album could be judged by its cover art, Life in Cartoon Motion is it. Next to the recent, more subdued cover shots of fellow Brits James Morrison, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Amy Winehouse, the illustration on Life in Cartoon Motion is an explosion of Technicolor spectacles: the pinks, purples, blues, greens, oranges, and yellows evoke Candy Land via magic markers and R. Crumb (another of Mika’s influences, according to his MySpace page).
Doves, flowers, vinyl records, a piano, and swirls of rainbow colors are floating extensions of Mika’s hyperactive brainwaves while the figurines correspond to some of the equally animated songs: a little girl holding a lollipop (“Lollipop”), a deceptively “straight-looking” man (“Billy Brown”), and a woman of substantial girth (“Big Girl”). Then there’s Mika himself represented by a cropped, sepia photo, perfectly nailing the parted-lip pose of pretty-boy pop stars. The apposition of his mature face with the cartoonish depiction of his world suggests that Mika is still reconciling the transition from childhood to adulthood.
But underneath the cheery keyboards, played by Mika himself, lurk some heavy and likely autobiographical stories. Take “Stuck in the Middle”, which appears towards the album’s end. Though the intro sets up what you think will be a whimsical walk in the park, the lyrics indicate otherwise:
I sit and think about
the day that you’re gonna die
Your wrinkled eyes betray
the joy with which you’ve smiled
“Stuck in the Middle” characterizes the friction between living honestly when other forces, like conservative family members, are quick to renounce the truth in order to sustain idealized notions of tradition. Mika also tackles heavy-handed issues like infidelity and sexuality on “Billy Brown”, a ditty about a married man having an affair with another man that gleefully skips along like The Beatles’ “Penny Lane”. Mika’s juxtaposition of crisis and conviviality on “Billy Brown” and “Stuck in the Middle” (not to mention “Grace Kelly”) plays like a clown smiling through tears. Both songs were self-penned by Mika and illustrate his ability to cleverly marry sensitive and substantive lyrics with infections pop hooks.
Even though Mika cops the melody from “(I Just) Died in Your Arms Tonight” by the Cutting Crew, “Relax (Take It Easy)” is also among the better songs here (it was a number one hit in Poland). The music is gloriously synthetic, but the confidence in Mika’s voice more than compensates for the artificiality of the music. The same could be said for the rock-driven “Ring Ring”, which is not the 1973 ABBA hit though I’m sure Mika could create pop magic out of that too.
However, Life in Cartoon Motion becomes a bit irritating when a character named Raffa Kobeisi (possibly one of Mika’s alter-egos?) appears on two pointless interludes that frame “Any Other World”. Having to endure a nonsensical monologue about a jilted bride, who speaks in broken English, makes the self-consciously serious “Any Other World” all the more ridiculous. Replete with maudlin strings and a children’s choir, “Any Other World” is lyrically malnourished with lines like, “I tried to live alone/but lonely is so lonely alone”. Ironically, Mika is much more convincing with teary sentiments when the music is fun.
But such missteps make the giddy pronouncements on a song like “Love Today” all the more sincere. “I’ve been crying for so long/fighting tears just to carry on”, he sings in a falsetto that would leave Jake Shears breathless. The pop-disco arrangement of “Love Today” dresses Mika in legwarmers and leotards; it’s the kind of song you’d expect the TV cast of “Fame” to perform mid-episode. Frankly, it’s refreshing to hear an unproven artist take risks with material that, historically, is subject to derision.
The real measure of Mika’s vocal talent, though, can be found on “Over My Shoulder”, a hidden track that follows “Happy Ending”. Like a choirboy singing by candlelight, Mika awakes goose bumps with the chilling purity of his voice. It’s a shame “Over My Shoulder” appears so covertly because it stirs more authentic feelings than the trite power-pop of “My Interpretation” and “Erase” (co-penned with Desmond Child). To be fair, “Over My Shoulder” is not enough the “cartoon motion” type to really fit the overall mood of this album, but it does suggest that Mika has much more to offer than a retread of Freddie Mercury’s histrionics.
The test of Mika’s longevity will be how he chooses to progress beyond the colorful kaleidoscope of his debut album. Life in Cartoon Motion has our attention. We do like you Mika, but where will you take us next?