Maggie Rogers - Surrender review: Back from school with songs for life

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 (S. Holden Jaffe @delwatergap)
(S. Holden Jaffe @delwatergap)

After a successful album, most musicians can expect endless rounds of touring, awards ceremonies, press, TV and radio commitments. They might lose themselves in drugs and alcohol, and/or buy a big house for their parents. Maggie Rogers is surely the first to follow a hit debut and a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist by enrolling at Harvard Divinity School to complete a Master of Religion and Public Life degree.

The 28-year-old’s set at the Coachella festival in April was, bizarrely, part of her coursework, a required “public presentation” to explore the ways in which creativity and spirituality are linked. The idea of music being for something bigger than toe-tapping suits a musician who has always seemed uncomfortable with pop success in the conventional sense. Her sudden fame happened outside of her control in 2016, when a video filmed while she was still a student at New York University went viral. She was captured playing her song Alaska to guest speaker Pharrell Williams and earning a stunned, ecstatic reaction. She has since spoken of panic attacks at soundchecks and feeling “scared and overwhelmed for a really long time”.

A former banjo player and child harpist who grew up in rural Maryland, she mixed electronic pop with delicate folk sounds on her debut album, Heard It in a Past Life, which sounded charming but too flimsy for subsequent requirements such as supporting Mumford & Sons around the arenas. She has said that these new songs are compositions she will “tour for a lifetime”. They sound much more solidly constructed, designed for bigger spaces, from the cavernous drums and confident guitar of the opening song, Overdrive, onwards.

Want Want is the catchy single, again featuring enormous drums and a growling bass sound that offers a gritty contrast to her softer vocals. But even her voice gets pushed to breaking point on Anywhere With You, which starts out as a ballad over distorted piano but builds in pace and volume to reach an overwhelming conclusion.

Shatter has a rumbling electric guitar, retro synths and a breathless pace that should make it a future live favourite. There’s a lull of slower, more acoustic moments in the middle, but mostly she sounds three feet taller compared to her meeker earlier work.

It sounds like her qualification was partly a way of hedging her bets: “If I wanted to now, I could go be a professor, or I could work in a bookshop,” she has said. She shouldn’t need to for a long while yet.

(Polydor)

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