Mika Delivers Undeniably Catchy Hooks on 'My Name Is Michael Holbrook'
Mika's My Name Is Michael Holbrook contains some of his sharpest lyrical conceits and catchiest hooks, but is often undercut by its too-glossy production.
My Name Is Michael Holbrook
Casablanca / Republic
4 October 2019
My Name Is Michael Holbrook, the fifth album by the English pop singer Mika, opens with the following lines:
It's not a sunrise over canyons shaped like hearts
It isn't bursting into song in Central Park
It's not the outline of your face drawn in the stars
It's a "still-there-Monday-morning" kind of love
In just these few lyrics, the point of "Tiny Love" becomes clear. Mika, for all of his global fame and success, wants a loving relationship whose virtues are the small things. At first, the song seems deeply ironic; when you think of Mika, you think of songs like "Grace Kelly", "Underwater", and "Happy Ending", all songs which fall squarely into the "sunrise over canyons shaped like hearts" mold of songwriting. Any of Mika's studio records, with little modification, could be transformed into a jukebox musical as big as any that have graced Broadway stages. Mika's choice to distance himself from such grandeur – even though the arrangement of "Tiny Love" is as Queen-indebted as any tune of his we've heard before – indicates, along with the title My Name is Michael Holbrook itself, that he's perhaps taking a turn for the more introspective and personal.
In a key post-chorus of "Tiny Love", Mika seems like he may be doing just that. The bombastic pop instrumentation that makes up the bulk of the track drops out, leaving only Mika and a gently played piano. "My name is Mika Holbrook / I was born in 1983", he states, "No, I'm not losing my mind / It's just this thing that you do to me / You get me high on a tiny love." The inclusion of those two biographical details is interesting. No one familiar with his music would mistake "Tiny Love" for anything but a Mika tune, and the year 1983 doesn't get much mention elsewhere, except in the frequent call-outs to 1980s pop throughout My Name is Michael Holbrook. Yet in the context of "Tiny Love", this confessional moment works. It's a reminder that beneath all the maximalist songwriting and theatricality that defines Mika's music, there's still an ordinary man underneath it all. My Name is Michael Holbrook gestures toward something like the mid-career self-titled LP, a chance for an artist to take stock of his work and what it all means.
What unfolds throughout My Name Is Michael Holbrook's 13 songs is, well, not quite that. The record follows the path laid out by 2015's No Place in Heaven, to date Mika's strongest studio affair. My Name Is Michael Holbrook is polished, stadium-ready pop that appeals to a wide range of listeners. Mark Crew, a relatively young producer whose track record consists of work with UK pop and electronic acts like Bastille and Calvin Harris, lacquers nearly every single track on this LP, which keeps with how most of Mika's music has sounded in the past. On the soaring, radio-ready choruses of "Platform Ballerinas" and "Tomorrow", Crew and co-producer Dan Priddy ensure that the arrangements are reduced to their purest and cleanest expressions, which allows Mika's beautiful melodies to shine.
As much as this pristine production flows naturally from Mika's songwriting style, it also flattens out the music in noticeable places. Even in the case of a pop singer like Mika, whose music feels of a piece with the way most top 40 artists are produced nowadays, production like My Name is Michael Holbrook's risks smoothing out edges that are at times needed to introduce sonic contrast and variety. The heartbreaking lyrical narrative of the piano ballad "Paloma", in which Mika recounts the night that his sister nearly died after falling off of her fourth-floor balcony, would have been better served by spare production and arrangement, ideally just Mika and the piano. A gentle drumbeat and some perfunctory strings which emerge in the second chorus add too much gloss to a tune whose beauty exists in its simple poignancy.
This kind of production does work brilliantly, however, on the show-stopping duet with Jack Savoretti midway through the album, "Ready to Call this Love". A somewhat different production issue crops up with "Sanremo". It's a suave tropical number with an excellent chorus that's undercut by a generic pad synth/clap beat instrumental that sounds like the backing music to a promotional video for a Mediterranean cruise. In these two songs and other places on My Name Is Michael Holbrook ("Stay High", the remix-demanding "Dear Jealousy"), the songwriting is sharp, but the production doesn't match it.
Early in the record, though, we hear Mika develop his most brilliant lyrical conceit to date. Superficially, "Ice Cream" sounds like the kind of innuendo-heavy pop song that's been around forever, cushioning lyrical matter about lust and sexuality in the language of confectionary sweets. (One could say that Mika's living a teenage dream.) But the details Mika lists off in the "daydream fantasy" he conjures with the song capture our current political moment in a manner belied by its unsubtle euphemisms. As Mika "hear[s] that sound" of the titular ice cream truck, he observes while "sweltering with heat" that it's "39 degrees, too hot for the bees / The grass is turning yellow." When Mika smells "colored plastic, baking in the sun / Sweet just like frustration, my senses on the run", the game's up.
"Ice Cream" is plainly about desire ("I want your ice cream / I want it melting on my tongue"), but it's more specifically about desire in the era of rising climate change. After all, if one's already feeling hot and bothered, spikes in global temperatures are only bound to magnify them, even warp them to the point that melting plastic becomes an aphrodisiac. The September leading up to My Name Is Michael Holbrook's 4 October release officially ranks as the hottest September in recorded human history.
Hearing "Ice Cream", one is reminded that Mika remains one of pop music's finest craftsmen, and still one of its most underrated. My Name Is Michael Holbrook doesn't deliver a definitive personal statement on Mika's part, and the production works against his creative vision from time to time. But it does offer half a dozen undeniably catchy jams and a reminder that Mika still ranks up there with the best pop artists of our time.