Album Review: Maggie Rogers - Notes From The Archive
This would have been around three years ago, right after Stranger in The Alps had come out, and I asked the person who was my boss at the time if she had heard of Phoebe Bridgers. She told me she hadn’t, and maybe this was within the same discussion, or maybe it was shortly after, but she said something about Bridgers possibly having either worked with, or ‘been discovered by’ Pharrell Williams.
I was confident that she had no association with Williams, and it was only recently that I realized she was talking about Maggie Rogers, and I guess, then, it’s kind of fitting that I finally came to Rogers through her appearance providing harmony vocals on Bridgers’ cover of the Goo Goo Dolls iconic “Iris.”
Maybe I had seen the cover to Rogers’ debut album, Heard it in A Past Life, online, here and there, but it was not a record that I had sat down with upon its release nearly two years ago, and is only something I recently gotten into, and I guess, then, it’s kind of fitting that, after I just recently began listening to Heard it in A Past Life and learning more about Rogers, she has just released, at year’s end, an anthology called Notes From The Archive—a 16 track collection that pulls material from some of her earliest work as a musician, dating as far back to the early 2010s.
And unless you followed her career, somehow, from its humble beginnings, or had done a deep dive on her first two albums, The Echo and Blood Ballet, after the single “Alaska” became a ‘viral hit’ around five years ago, then you might be startled, at first, by the night and day difference between the slick, groove oriented, enormous electro-pop from Heard it in A Past Life, and the spectrum of either ramshackle guitar rock, or haunting, sparse folk music that is found on Notes From The Archive—a rewarding, emotional cumulation that shows an artist that was not so much restless from the beginning, but indicates Rogers’ interests were in more than just one sound, or style, and that there was a willingness to evolve or mature, early on.
Did Pharrell Williams—a literally ageless1 producer, singer, songwriter, and musician—‘discover’ Maggie Rogers?
Yes and no.
Rogers, now in her mid-20s, looks like a baby2 in the clip of Williams sitting in on a Masterclass when she was still a student at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music—the video, readily available on YouTube, induces cringes while Williams and Rogers both sit in a studio, alongside a handful of other students, listening as “Alaska” plays through the speakers. It’s awkward to watch now, yes, but at the time of its original uploading, the clip resulted in a renewed interest in The Echo and Blood Ballet, and a number of labels attempting to sign Rogers to a deal.
It’s difficult to comprehend that the young woman responsible for the percussive, slithering, playful “Alaska,” as well as the gigantic, bombastic, and surprisingly fun at times pop sound of Heard it in A Past Life, was only a few years earlier, making emotional, raw, and beautiful folk albums.
At first glance, one might believe that there would be little, if any, cohesion or real structure to Notes From The Archive, simply because of how it has been assembled—a mix of previously unreleased material, as well as songs pulled from two different albums recorded at different parts, very early on in Rogers’ career.
However, outside of the jaw dropping quality to the oldest material on the album (somebody barely out of their teens should not be that good), perhaps the thing that is most surprising about this collection is just how well it works. Rogers has smartly organized the 16 tracks in a very specific way, and even without that knowledge going into it—thanks to the audio commentary tracks featuring Rogers, available to listen to in Spotify and Apple Music, Notes From The Archive is very obviously divided up in to sections, or parts—but even the movement between those parts, like moving out of Rogers’ unreleased ‘rock EP,’ recorded in 2016, into the songs pulled from Blood Ballet—there is barely any hesitation at all, and really, all you can hear, even with the very sharp contrast in instrumentation, is the confidence Rogers exudes as a singer, songwriter, and performer.
Notes From The Archive concludes with its oldest material—four songs from Rogers’ 2012, self-produced debut, The Echo, and as she explains in the commentary track, which provides slightly more insight into this collection, she was all of 18, and had just graduated from high school when The Echo was released; she was 16 and 17, still, when writing and recording the album, and at times, it shows, but overall, it doesn’t—at least in the quality and depth of the work. You can hear a real youthfulness in her voice in these four songs—and a bit of a premature preoccupation with her own mortality and the passage of time in one of them—but what resonates the most here, as well as in the collection as a whole, is the raw emotion, heart and soul, and power that she manages to cram into a song, even from an early age.
In her brief, rushed conversation with Pharrell Williams, before “Alaska” begins to play, Rogers talks about her rural upbringing in Maryland, and that her primary instrument, at the time, is the banjo—and it is the banjo that you hear underneath her belted out vocals on “Anybody,” a song that, structurally, works well with its skeletal, bluegrass-y arrangement, though based on the sound Rogers has matured into a decade later, it’s easy to imagine a slightly updated version, based around glitchy, colorful electronic textures.
“Anybody” is impressive, yes, because it’s clear that even as a teenager, Rogers knew what her vocal range was, and how to use it; it’s also heartfelt and somber, and even though it’s not a ‘pop’ song, there are parts of the melody that are still infectious, but it is not the most impactful or startling of the songs she’s selected to represent The Echo on this collection—that would be the two songs that close the collection, “Wolves,” and the sprawling, dizzying “Satellite.”
Following what could be called very traditional bluegrass or folk arrangement and instrumentation, “Wolves,” built around a strummed banjo, mournful strings, a tambourine that’s just slightly off-time, and the dull thuds of an upright bass, is the kind of song that simmers and haunts, and Rogers has written it in such an intelligent way that she knows when to let it build and boil over—specifically during the song’s refrain, when she harmonizes (presumably with herself), which is absolutely gorgeous and blends perfectly into strings as they begin to swell.
Arriving at over seven minutes in length, Notes From The Archive concludes with the stirring, haunting “Satellite,” which finds Rogers, presumably at the time, pushing herself to her musical limits—and really, roughly a decade later, it is still an awe-inspiring song for anybody to have written, let alone someone in their teens.
Primarily written around moody, at times dissonant piano keys that frenetically spill through the song, it, much like “Wolves,” really works when it hits a very specific part—there’s no real ‘refrain’ for Rogers to return to after each verse on “Satellite,” but rather beautiful, wordless, emotional howling, with a little bit of reverb on her voice so it soars, but also weaves itself into the fabric of the song with the piano, cello, and violin, creating truly thrilling results that will linger well after the album has finished.
A substantial portion of Notes From The Archive is dedicated to material from Rogers’ second album, 2014’s Blood Ballet—with six tracks pulled from the album, recorded and released while she was still in college—the songs selected show her both growing in confidence and in seriousness as a performer and lyricist, as well as hints of her growing interest in the inclusion of electronic flourishes within her otherwise still sparse and spectral folk-leaning songs, which you hear fluttering in “Resonant Body.”
It can be easy, at times, to lose sight of Rogers’ lyrics in her latter day material, just simply because there are so many other layers swirling around, and the songs are often written around big, pop-skewing hooks; but here, with things stripped down musically speaking, the way Rogers plays with emotion, both within the arranging, as well as in her lyrics, becomes very, very apparent.
You can hear that immediately in the way the somber, dramatic piano chords slowly ring out across the sense of tension Rogers creates on the devastating “Symmetry,” originally the closing track on Blood Ballet, and more or less the centerpiece of Notes, it is incredibly sparse and haunting, and among the most heart wrenching things I have heard in recent memory. Within the commentary Rogers provides regarding the songs on Blood Ballet, she discusses that parts of the album are about the difficulties of the relationship she was in at the time in college—and if she and her partner were going to split up after they were finished with school.
“Symmetry” is harrowing—there’s no other way to describe it. It’s the kind of song that you would want to go on forever, but it ends, almost abruptly, after less than three minutes. And while, in the moments leading up to this within the context of Notes From The Archive, you can begin to hear the confidence and abilities Rogers has as a lyricist—but it’s here, on “Symmetry,” when she begins painting stark, evocative images of the strain and distance that has already formed in the relationship before it is even really ‘over.’
“We don’t have to shiver like we did back then,” she pleads in the second verse. “We don’t have to quiver, or remember when”; but then, Rogers quickly steers the song into darker territory—“We tear things—we break them apart with our teeth. Two halves mourning a wretched whole.”
She doesn’t so much rush to the end, but in repeating the expression “soaked in symmetry,” Rogers sings the phrase in a high, airy range, and allows the natural reverb in the room carry her voice just slightly above the sound of the notes from the piano ring out and fade into the ether, with a bed of dissonant noise swirling underneath—and then it all cuts out to a startling silence, creating a truly effecting moment on this collection, and within the original context of the song, would have made for an arresting closing track.
The curious thing about Notes From The Archive is that, sequentially, it works itself backwards, concluding with Rogers’ earliest recordings, and opening with the ‘most recent’ in the context of the album—a collection of previously unreleased songs, to which she refers to as the ‘rock EP’ in the audio commentary. Recorded in 2016, these four songs were recorded at roughly the same time she was developing her interest in electronic, more pop oriented music, which would go on to take shape in the form of “Alaska.”
The juxtaposition in styles is fascinating—she, herself, admits the surprising contrast—and as preternaturally as electro-infused, infectious pop came to her, and as successful as that has been for Rogers, almost right out of the gate (Heard it in A Past Life debuted at number two on the Billboard charts when it was released), I would say that her brief turn as a bandleader is compelling, and offers a small glimpse of a path not taken.
There is a swooning, almost dreamy, very pensive nature nearly all four of these songs, especially the the very downcast opening track, “Celadon & Gold,” which is sharply contrasted against the shimmering, soaring energy of “Together,” which, even in its ‘rock band’ arrangement and instrumentation, relies on the irresistible, memorable hook of its refrain. As the EP’s tracks progress, Rogers stops short of making a ‘shoegaze’ song, but “Steady Now” is among the most musically interesting of these four—with its jangly, distended guitar layering, it creates an undeniably woozy, gauzy atmosphere.
The ‘rock EP’ selections conclude with the slow burning “One More Afternoon,” which Rogers and her band carefully build to a cacophonic peak—and here seems just as good of a place as any to draw attention to the thoughtfulness and contemplative nature of Rogers’ lyrics, across the entire collection, which, outside of her otherworldly vocal prowess, is one of the things that, even as the style of the music changes slightly, creates a strong connectivity on Notes From The Archive.
Throughout Notes, even in the songs written when she was a teenager, there are small, poignant moments of reflection—a fact that reveals itself not on the first listen, but when you sit with the album and really focus in on it, the songs then open themselves up.
On “One More Afternoon,” for example, she quietly reflects on her first love, and does so with an impressive, gracious nature—“Maybe in ten years,” she sings. “I’ll learn that you’re always with me somehow—always in my mind.” Or, on the a little too pensive for her age “Kids Like Us,” pulled from her debut, she waxes in a surprisingly eloquent way on the passage of time—“But if time keeps moving just like this, then it won’t be soon before I’m old”; or in the song’s refrain, “And they all will be wishing they could just be kids like us, but I’m getting older with each day, and soon I’ll be wishing too.”
I hesitate to say it’s an audacious thing for Rogers to have done, following a successful major label turn, by releasing an archival collection. Notes From The Archive is obviously not a proper ‘follow up’ to Heard it in A Past Life, but in its thoughtful, delicate nature, what it provides is an opportunity for those who were admittedly late to the party (like me) to appreciate Rogers’ past work—the sampling of both The Echo and Blood Ballet featured here were enough to send me to her mostly abandoned Bandcamp page to download them—as well as appreciating the growth that has occurred in less than a decade, but also listening in awe at just how fucking impressive Maggie Rogers has always been.
1- Pharrell Williams is 47 years old, but since his rise to prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s thanks to his production work with The Neptunes, he has literally looked exactly the same in every photo I have seen of him over the last 20+ years. How does he do it?
2- I don’t know why I was taken aback by how young and fresh faced Rogers looks in this video. She doesn’t look, like, a lot different than she does now, but around four years have passed, and I guess she has grown into herself more in that time.