Album Review: Maggie Rogers - Surrender
If you look up the word “surrender” in the dictionary, it is defined as ceasing “resistance to an enemy or opponent," and submitting “to their authority”; or to “give up or hand over (a person, right, or possession.).” And what I find now is that I am thinking about how, within a particular context, that this is not at all about giving up, but about giving in.
Not about the idea of submission to an authority, but rather, about the submission within yourself, and perhaps greater, or more important, to an unknown of what could happen next—regardless of it it is joyful or will ultimately break your heart.
This is the story of what happened when I finally gave in.
When I am on the phone with my closest friend, attempting to describe Surrender, the new album from Maggie Rogers, on the afternoon before it's officially released, I am struggling to articulate myself well enough so that it makes sense.
We are respectively both outside with our dogs—Andrea, my friend, is on the afternoon walk she takes with her dog Chula every day between 4 and 5 p.m.; I am outside with Po, who is content to toddle around the entirety of the front and backyard of the house, easily distracted by every smell his nose comes across, or the rustle of leaves from the welcomed cool summer breeze. I hold his leash in the same hand as the phone, and I find I cannot help that as the conversation shifts to Surrender; I begin, somewhat emphatically, talking with my free hand, which, of course, Andrea cannot see.
But what she can hear are the difficulties I find myself having as I begin describing the album—emphasizing that it is a very “dense” and “complicated” sounding record. “There’s just a lot happening,” I think I’m able to tell her, and that it’s much less pop-oriented than its predecessor, Rogers’ major label debut, Heard it in A Past Life.
Andrea quickly contends that Rogers is not exactly someone she would consider to be “pop,” as we are both aware of her early, inherently folk-leaning recordings from nearly a decade ago, so I do not backpedal exactly. Still, I concede that Roger is “pop adjacent,” and I go on to say that there are moments on her major label debut, Heard it in A Past Life, that are indicative of the notion I recently spent a lot of time thinking about—of “catharsis through pop music.”
A kind of beautiful and tragic convergence of wanting to just lose yourself completely on the dance floor, wanting to just lose yourself completely and cry, and then the space that forms when those intersect.
Surrender, I try to tell her, is a dense and complicated record that really does not have those kinds of moments.
But it is, I will find, the longer I sit within, and sit in it, an album about what happens when you give in to something greater than yourself. And if it is not the result of a convergence between the urge to flail around wildly in the darkness with a startling abandon in rhythm with a song you love, and the urge to let the tears flow as freely as they need, the album, then what is it a convergence of?
There are a lot of ideas, or themes, that Rogers pulls throughout the entirety of Surrender—it is an album that is so ambitious in how much it wants to tell you, and how it wants to tell you those things, that it does, at times, risk buckling under its own weight.
It is an album so ambitious that it, to some extent, served as the inspiration for Rogers’ thesis—“Surrender: Cultural Consciousness, the Spirituality of Public Gatherings, & the Ethics of Power in Pop Culture,” submitted and defended just months before the album was released as part of the year-long master's program she enrolled in at Harvard Divinity School.
It is an album rooted in both a visceral sense of urgency and of restlessness—surprisingly lusty at times; it is an album that is messily spilling over with a hope for something more. And it is, at times, will plunge you into incredible depths of sorrow.
And as these things begin to converge, there is a desperation—at times almost dangerous—and the surrender within this context comes in what forms between the joyful or jubilant, and the depths of how sorrow is depicted—the human condition.
Surrender, as an album, doesn’t so much defy genre, or classification by sound or aesthetic, but it does violently push back against the notion of being pigeonholed as just one thing through how restless its spirit is, but also in just how undeniably bombastic the songs are in their arranging.
It is the work of a singer and songwriter who, a decade into her career as a whole and roughly five years into the opportunities offered through inking a deal with a major label, has reached the point where she wants to be viewed as an Artist with a capital A, and that Surrender, when listened as a whole, is a bold, often fearless, and unflinchingly chaotic Artistic Statement.
And what is, perhaps more striking and impressive than the ambitious scope of Surrender as a whole is the flawlessly executed five-song run that it opens with—rarely is there an album that begins with this much confidence and unbridled exuberance, where the artist can sustain it, and sustains it well, for that long. From the moment it begins, Rogers gives each of these songs—almost the entire first half—the space they require to grow. As they build off of the momentum of one another, and Surrender is on the cusp of becoming just too much too early on, she knows exactly when to scale it all back, creating a fascinating and awe-inspiring balance of tension and release—both in the way she controls the tone and pacing, but also in the album’s myriad textures and layers.
It is an album that sounds like a million bucks—not slick, or overproduced, but just simply fucking enormous, and meticulously labored over by Rogers and her co-producer and collaborator Thomas Edward Percy Hull, who works under the name Kid Harpoon—the two of them crafted the album slowly, primarily working on it in both the famed Electric Lady Land Studios in New York, and Real World, Peter Gabriel’s studio located in Bath, England.
Surrender opens, and closes, with respective songs that were destined to be sequenced where they are on the record—“Overdrive,” is not exactly a mission statement for the album, or plays its hand in revealing the conceit, but it is a gorgeous, slow-burning opening track that does set the stakes for what will follow. Musically, and the way it is structured, it is simply enormous—triumphant and on the cusp of exuberance that Rogers, somehow, and this isn't easy to explain, can restrain just enough that the song doesn’t get away from her completely. “Overdrive” begins with this smoldering, giant-sounding keyboard melody that then ripples throughout the rest of the song, while Rogers, attempting to operate from a place of reserve, even as the song sounds like it’s about to blast off at times, sings through seemingly gritted teeth, with a slight wavering in her voice.
The ideas, or themes, of love and sex, and how one is often confused for the other, are not new things to find within the lyricism of contemporary popular music. And one of the things I noticed in my early listens through Surrender is just, at times, how horny of a record it is—it isn’t, like, raunchy and cringey like a handful of the songs from an album like Ariana Grande’s Positions. Still, it isn’t as coy or suggestive in a PG-13 kind of way as the bulk of Carly Rae Jepsen’s canon is.
Rogers doubles down on the technicolor exuberance of “Overdrive” with the two songs that follow—“That’s Where I Am,” and “Want Want,” both of which happen to be two of the three singles released in advance of the album.
Musically, both songs are similar in how they push themselves to their respective sonic limits—piling layers upon layers until it seems like the constraints of the song itself will burst at the seams. “That’s Where I Am,” Rogers explained in a newsletter to fans, was written after watching 10 Things I Hate About You, and was partially inspired by her desire to create a song that sounded like it could be played over the ending credits of a romantic comedy. And the lyrics, she adds, are part of a story that she had been “carrying around for many years—the story of a love that had been with me and unfolding for a long time.”
Rogers begins depicting that love, presumably, in the lyrics to “Overdrive,” when she sings, “I don’t wanna do this again if you’re gon’ break my heart.” And Surrender, in a sense, is a concept album, or at least a tightly knit collection of songs—many of which are tightly bound to one another through this story of love; however, Rogers’ narrative is not linear, and part of the balance she strikes with tension and release is found in where she is writing from throughout specific moments the album.
“That’s Where I Am” is more joyful and giddy, more than anything else—the song itself is arranged in a dizzying cacophony of chopped-up, glitchy vocal samples that lay the groundwork for the thundering drums to come in, and the dramatic flare of the synthesizers used throughout.
Rogers depicts myriad things, or emotions, throughout Surrender—one of them being desperation, which is often depicted in a volatile and unsettling way as the album progresses. But here, it is maybe less immediate, and more of a longing that needs to be fulfilled. “I told you I loved you when we were just friends,” Rogers belts out before the song’s first chorus even kicks in. “You kept me waiting, and I hated you then. Gave it a few years, you settled your debts. But I never got over the secrets I kept.” And as the song continues to oscillate wildly, her pleadings become lustier and more celebratory—“When we’re together, it feels like heaven,” Rogers confesses near the song's end. “You’re the only one I wanted—all I wanted was you.”
“This song is about sex,” Rogers explained in a post on social media about the even more bombastically arranged “Want Want.” “No real other way to say it. It’s a song about early wanting to have sex with someone and then doing it. And enjoying it. And wanting to do it again.”
The sequencing of “That’s Where I Am” and “Want Want” is where the energy, or the “feral joy” as Rogers describes the overall mood of Surrender, reaches its climax—at least within the album’s first half. The songs are not mirrored images of one another, but they are complimentary w/r/t a sound, or aesthetic, as well as what they are about.
“Want Want” is inherently the horniest song on the album—but in the depictions of a reckless and blind lusting, it is also extremely sex positive, which is something a lot of other pop songs about sex are unable to say, or say as articulately as Rogers does here.
Rogers explains in her social media post about “Want Want” that she co-wrote the song with Samuel Holden Jaffe, who performs under the moniker Del Water Gap, and worked with Rogers early on in her career—and there is speculation that the song is about their relationship. “You’re better than the man I knew when we were in a band, and you wouldn’t flinch and wouldn’t make a move,” Rogers sings, letting her vocals tumble out into the pulsating, slithering rhythm of the song. “Try to forget the rest as I watch you get undressed,” she continues. “Pray to god this won’t be a mess.”
Both “Want Want” and “That’s Where I Am” are among the most infectiously written and constructed songs on Surrender, so it is very obvious from the moment they each respectively begin, why they were selected as the lead singles to arrive in advance of the album—and I hesitate to say it makes them less impactful than some of the more dramatic, or introspective songs that come later on in the album, but they are among the loosest and most freewheeling in the vibe Rogers has cultivated—a space where it is easy to lose yourself in the bright, dazzling arranging, and a space where it is safe to sit with whatever lustful feelings you may find within once you are there. “Want Want” specifically, even in the way it empowers to claim your sexual agency, is much more focused on the way the elements of the song come together in a way the vocal melody in the “pre-chorus” soars, and the sheer enormity and hypnotic groove of the chorus itself.
Rogers’ presence on social media—specifically on Instagram, is a curious mix of promotion once Surrender had been announced earlier this year, as well as very brief glimpses into her life—not her “personal life,” but over the course of the last year, she sporadically would share photos of herself at work in either studio location that the album was recorded in, along with the occasional mention of her enrollment at Harvard Divinity School.
The rollout of Surrender was long-gestating, to say the least—by sharing photos of herself in the studio, at work, a new album seemed imminent; it was just a question of when, exactly. And the closer to the album’s arrival, the more glimpses into Surrender Rogers was offering—including snippets of lyrics, handwritten onto pieces of paper.
“Suckin’ nicotine down my throat/Thinking of you giving head.”
And I am uncertain why, following the release of both advance singles, and the lyrical themes in both of those songs, I was surprised at a lyric, both very frank but also shadowy and ambiguous in a way, about oral sex.
Rogers describes “Horses,” the album’s fifth track and the third single released from it, as one of the rawest and emotional things she’s ever written, explaining she wrote the song on her second day working in Real World Studios, and recorded the song’s powerful, visceral vocal track in one take.
And “Horses,” as with a number of the other songs on Surrender, the kind of desperation and longing that was boiling over with lust in other moments, is replaced with a stark, often dangerous, and volatile feeling.
“Horses” is a mid-tempo slow burn—one of the few songs on Surrender that finds Rogers playing the acoustic guitar. Its additional instrumentation is much less focused on exuberance and bombast. And lyrically, “Horses” is firmly rooted in the sense of longing—a kind of yearning that should not be a surprise within the context of the album taken as a whole, but much like the jittery restlessness that comes through at times, there is a terrible, beautiful, and dangerous yearning that you can feel through the song.
It’s on “Horses,” where Rogers lets her voice soar to seemingly unthinkable heights, specific in the song’s pleading chorus—“I see horses running wild—I wish I could feel like that for just a minute,” she sings. “Would you come with me, or would you resist? Oh, could you just give in?”
And if it is “Horses” that truly brings the pacing or at least tone of Surrender’s first half down from the staggering heights it reached within its first three tunes, the album’s fourth track, “Anywhere With You,” is structured to serve as a kind of traditional piece—it does find its way into a caterwauling and spiraling feeling, especially as it reaches its conclusion, but elsewhere, especially as it begins, the song is pensive and inwardly focused enough that it eases the album out of the sexually liberated theatrics, and really introduces the often tumultuous nature of what Rogers is depicting in her lyricism throughout.
And there is, as there often is in contemporary popular music, a “you” in the song “Anywhere With You”—stopping short of saying an antagonist, or foil, to Rogers’ narrative, it is a song, written in the first person that is directed to someone—unnamed or unidentified, and it is, at least at first, seemingly tender in its depiction of a relationship, though as the song’s momentum continues to build and the tempo picks up slightly, there is an immediacy and an anguish that is ferociously clawing at the wall of the song, waiting to be let out.
Rogers, as Surrender continues to unfold in the second half, proves herself to be the kind of lyricist that has a knack for writing an impressive, memorable hook, but more importantly than that, is the kind of lyricist that can really, when she wants to, turn a phrase that stops you in your tracks—and “Anywhere With you” was the first time that happened for me on my initial listen of the album.
Surrender is not exactly a “rock” album, but “Anywhere With You” is probably its closest thing to a “rock” song, not only because it is one of the more guitar-driven songs of this set, but with its unrelenting rhythm and the underscore of moody synths and pianos, musically it is very reminiscent of the latter day bombast of The National. And before the song explodes into a caterwauling, angsty fury, Rogers’ tenderness toward the unnamed “you” in “Anywhere With You” is the kind of evocative imagery that reveals just enough while still being just vague enough.
“And I said, ‘Listen, oh, I know it’s been a long, long year, but I think we should go and get you out of here,’” Rogers sings in the song’s chorus. “I’ll go anywhere—anywhere with you. Pack up all your shit and put it in the back—maybe the miles can make up for the things you lack.”
But that tenderness soon gives way to the volatile nature of the relationship with this unidentified “you”—a recurring theme as it continues. “You tell me that forever couldn’t come too soon. I wanna lose my mind in a hotel room with you—anywhere would do,” Rogers confesses as “Anywhere With You” keeps building before the song, and this energy it has, can no longer be contained, and it bursts apart, with Rogers shredding her larynx, singing through distortion—“Would you tell me if I ever started holding you back? Would you talk me off the guard rail of my panic attack?,” she asks before the final chorus—“You tell me you want everything, you want it fast, but all I’ve ever wanted is to make something fucking last.”
I am hesitant to say that Surrender falters slightly in the second half—but it does. Even before the first part of the record comes to a close, I realized that I was much less stirred emotionally and, in some cases, even less interested in some of the songs that arrive around the midpoint, beginning with “Be Cool”—it’s glitchy, slinking, synth-heavy foundation is compelling, yes, but the song as a whole, including its lyrics, fails to find its way out of the musical holding pattern it operates from.
In a surprising contrast to that, “Shatter” rides a relentless, 1980s synthy, post-punk-inspired snarl, with Rogers pushing her voice into its absolute limits—it’s fun to hear, sure, at least during the initial listen of Surrender, but even with the detonative nature of the song, it feels a little out of place amongst the rest of the album, and is among the less successfully executed tracks on the second side.
And I am, in truth, also extremely uncertain how to feel about the song “I’ve Got A Friend,” because even in the intimate, fascinating way it’s produced—including flourishes of jaunty, out-of-tune piano key plunks contributed by Jon Batiste, and snippets of conversations between Clare Cottrill—known professionally as Clairo, and her former roommate and musician Claud Mintz, laid down just underneath the taught, finger plucked and slapped acoustic guitar rhythm, and even with the sentimental nature of the song itself—“I’ve got a friend who’s been there through it all—when I lose my shit she’s the first person I call,” Rogers exclaims in the song’s final chorus, “I’ve got a friend who handed me a shot and taught me to dance when the love inside was not,” there is still a clumsiness in just how earnest it is that makes it slightly off-putting within the context of the album.
That, the unexpected (and extremely cringey) lyric about her friend masturbating to a poster of Robert Pattison.
Surrender’s second half isn’t entirely uneven, though—the album’s final, enormous gasp of technicolor bombast comes in the form of “Honey.” Musically, it is a continuation of the overall aesthetic the album opened with—it doesn’t smolder quite as much as “Overdrive,” does, but it, rather quickly, ascends to nearly the same dazzling, dizzying, powerful heights through the way Rogers is able to control the use of tension and release between the verses and the choruses.
Lyrically, “Honey” is almost an inverse of the lyrics to “Overdrive.” There is a nervousness that opens the album that is on the cusp of being hopeful, but by the time the album, and the loose narratives that Roger pulls through it reach “Honey,” the tenth track, that nervous hope is replaced with an embittered sneer.
“I believe I could have been your girl for about a hundred years in another world,” she explains to the still unnamed “you” of the song. “But I had to leave, and now when you hear my name, does it break your shit? Or do you run away?”
And I don’t think there was, at any point, when I was easing my way into Surrender during the first 24 hours I spent with it, where I was on the fence about it—I recognized it almost immediately as the big Artistic Statement from an Artist with a Capital A who both deserves and demands to be taken seriously. And I recognized just how impressive the first half of the record was in terms of the meticulous attention to production and the way the themes of Surrender are introduced—but it would have been during the song “Symphony,” the album’s penultimate moment, during the bridge section, when I didn’t so much feel “seen” or “attack” as I so often do by contemporary popular music, but through Rogers’ depiction of the human condition, even though it is an extremely personal album, I felt more connected to it, and could catch glimpses of myself, unflattering or otherwise, reflected in her narratives.
Musically, “Symphony” is among Surrender’s most restrained because it, like a few other places throughout the album, maintains a holding pattern where it seems like it might want to, or is capable, of taking off into something more, but never does. But in that restraint, here anyway, there is a relaxed nature to it. It begins with a loop of what seems to be an e-bowed guitar string, with the skittering percussion tumbling in on top of it, creating one of the more densely layered and arranged tunes. It is a song driven primarily through the percussion, with the rest of the elements being a little more understated (buzzy atmospherics, acoustic and electric guitar, et al.) save for the beeps and boops coming from a vintage-sounding synthesizer when the chorus arrives.
And of all the songs on Surrender that find themselves musically swirling or spiraling at any point, “ Symphony " is the most dizzying—the rhythm never ceases. It’s only within the song’s final moments when Rogers allows all the instruments to slow their pacing down very deliberately, serving as a bit of a gentle release into the last track.
Rogers is the kind of lyricist that can really, when she wants to, turn a phrase that stops you in your tracks.
“I know there’s times when I can be a lot to handle,” Rogers assures in the bridge to “Symphony.” “And I’m working with a therapist to take care of it. Keep coming back to me when I keep pushing you away—it’s not something I mean to do, it just comes off that way.”
This admission, truly what made me like and find more to appreciate about the album as a whole, is not the only place where Rogers is so approachable in her portrayal of the human condition.
Less desperate and plaintive than “Horses,” the song “Begging for Rain” burns nearly as slowly, with just a little hint of a twang to its arranging—it is also a moment when Rogers allows her voice to soar, even in the emotional exhaustion she depicts in one line that has lingered with me every day since I first heard her say it—“I try my best not to be bitter—give my rage a babysitter, stop waiting for the adults to come home.”
It isn’t a poem, and perhaps it serves as a mission or artist’s statement more than anything else, but on the back cover of Surrender, there is a short passage written by Rogers that, even before you have torn open the cellophane wrapping of the record, introduces you into the world she has built.
“When I’m angry, or in love, I feel it in my teeth,” she begins.
“Strange harmonic buzzing. Cuts through my hands. My jaw. My breast bone. For a long time I fought it. Resisted. Held up my fists. Tried to hold the current. Foolish. I found peace in distortion. A chaos I could control. Turned the drums up real loud hoping they could shock me back in. Break the numbness. Let the bright lights drag me out.
“Do you fear what’s underneath? Is your jaw wound tight? Do you ever want to bite? And what if you did? Sink your gums into a shoulder. Of a lover. Of a day. Of a year. We were 18. We were 23. I’m 27 now. Here’s all I have. It’s yours to take. Love. Hate. Anger. Feral Joy. This is the story of what happened when I finally gave in.
“Can you let go? Can you feel it all? Can you—”
Surrender, as a whole, is not a “huge” ask of its listeners, but nevertheless, an ask. It never becomes inaccessible, and is often infectiously written, though the more significant themes that circle the album and just how dense and complicated the arranging is can make it, at times, seem more intimidating of a listen than it is. And even when it falters, it never becomes unlistenable in those moments. It is a gigantic statement, bold, unafraid, finding the beauty where it can, and where one might not think there is beauty to be found.
It is an album that, as thoughtful pieces of art often do, asks questions—difficult ones, at times—of its listeners, but Rogers rarely provides answers, but encourages you to look inside, and experience yourself in these songs as you are able, and to reconsider the very notion of surrendering as an act of giving in—giving in to whatever comes—rather than giving up.
It can seem daunting, if not impossible, to open yourself that way. But there is something incredibly freeing when you open yourself up to that possibility, even in the slightest.
This is the story of what happened when I finally gave in.