Time hasn’t mellowed out or settled down Mica Levi, the mischievous experimentalist behind Micachu and the Shapes. Like the engaging, out-of-left-field debut Jewellery, Micachu’s latest, Never, channels Levi’s restless creative impulses, as it bursts at the seams with snippet-length songs that are overstuffed with off-the-wall hooks and oddball arrangements. If anything, the three-plus years between Jewellery and Never may have just revved up Levi’s overactive imagination; in the interim, the classically trained avant-pop prodigy has been collaborating with a wide range of cutting-edge artists on diverse projects, from a live recording with the chamber orchestra London Sinfonietta to making mixtapes with DJ/producer-type Kwes. Indeed, the new tricks she’s picked up seem to have only amped up her ADD-addled aesthetic, exemplified by the self-made instruments Levi’s invented to bring to life her demented, Frankenstein-like pop vision.
Certainly, Never doesn’t give any indication that Levi’s reckless eclecticism and incessant tinkering are going to slow down any time soon, though that comes as more of a mixed blessing this time around. While you could grade the precocious Jewellery on a curve for its audacity and ingenuity, Never isn’t as much of a revelation, since Levi still seems to be in that stage where she’s brimming over with good ideas and promising leads, but not yet at that point where she can fully develop them into complete, fleshed-out compositions on a consistent enough basis. Recalling Jewellery’s short-attention-span ditties, the opener “Easy” sets the tone for most of what follows on Never, as it gives you a little of everything you’d expect from Micachu without completely satisfying you, either. Sure, “Easy” offers up some catchy lines to chew on, and its head-bobbing clatter of ramshackle percussion, jacked-up synths, and what’s apparently the vroom of a vacuum cleaner can be thrilling. But it just feels like there’s too much nervous energy and wasted calories on “Easy”, as it spins into entropy rather than stretching itself out and turning into something more substantial. That’s also the impression you get from the next couple of tracks after “Easy” — the skronky, off-kilter title track and the jittery “Waste” — as they skitter by before you get a chance to absorb the neat bits of distorted guitar and found-sound rhythms on them.
That frenetic, frantic pace may be what defines Micachu’s signature aesthetic, but it’s also what too often keeps you from finding something to grab on to on Never, as Levi always seems to be on to her next brainstorm before she’s finished with the one you’re trying to process. With most of the tracks logging around the two-and-a-half-minute mark or less, it’s tough for many of them really sink in and stand out, no matter how inspired and clever elements of her music can be. The oscillating noise on the single “OK”, the blood-pressure-raising beats of “Heaven”, and the hyperactive sampling of “You Know” are viscerally appealing, but end up sounding somewhat interchangeable, and it’s not just because the songs all seem like they’re running in place, structurally speaking. What makes Never feel redundant at crucial points is the production, which makes everything come off overly busy and monotonous — paradoxically enough — at the same time. So whereas Jewellery incorporated and accentuated some organic elements like strummed acoustic instruments by giving them room to breathe, the way Never is rendered is too claustrophobic and vertiginous, rarely giving you a chance to find your bearings within the tightly packed soundscapes.
By contrast, it’s the moments when Levi tweaks the pace and tone that Never holds on to your attention. The loping “Sick” has a more laid-back air to it that goes with the flow of its dubby bass, while the immersive altered state of “Holiday” has a woozy, light-headed quality to it that matches the conceit of the track; when Levi delivers the chorus, “Cannot wait for my holiday / I’ve got my work cut out for me,” in her lazy Cockney drawl, she perfectly captures what it’s like to be on a mental vacation, whether you’re actually on holiday or not. Better yet, the M.I.A.-esque “Low Dogg” shows that Micachu can maintain an agitated, aggro approach without launching an all-out assault on your senses all the time, carving out some space between the red-alert blasts of bottom-heavy noise for her surprisingly fluid spoke-sung vocals.
Yet it’s not until the near the end of Never that Micachu finally stretches herself and innovates her already innovative art-scarred pop with the whacked-out waltz, “Nothing”. Although it’s hard to describe anything Micachu does as subtle, “Nothing” is the best example of how Levi can bowl you over without being so in your face, as the interplay between the lulling, druggy guitar and some wobbly lines from a homespun Theremin-like contraption build a complex but catchy melody. That “Nothing” appears as the album comes to a close makes Never seem like something of a missed opportunity, that it could’ve been more if only Micachu were as good at reining in her imagination as she is giving into it. Then again, it also goes to show that it’s never too late for a young talent like Levi to figure something new out, pushing herself and her art ahead even further by holding back just enough.