Julia Michaels pulls the strings of pop. Since her teens she’s written songs for a boundless litany of artists: Bieber, Ed Sheeran, Selena Gomez, Dua Lipa, Demi Lovato, even Linkin Park. In 2017, she made the leap from songwriter to star look easy with the release of her debut single ‘Issues’, and a few EPs followed. But ultimately, she shuns the merciless limelight in favour of the forgiving environment of the studio, where takes can be perfected, and songs sharpened to their finest point.
Michaels’ first full-length album, ‘Not In Chronological Order’, showcases love in all its guises – infatuation, jealousy, bitter rebounds, “butterflies, a thousand kinds” – from the position of someone home and dry in a stable relationship. And the album also showcases pop in all its guises, from the position of someone home and dry in a day job as songwriter, not pop star.
Growling pop-rock girl power? ‘All My Exes’ – tick. Inexplicably addictive David Gray coffee-shop club beats? ‘Undertone’ – tick. Self-love ballad? ‘That’s The Kind Of Woman’ – tick. Disco dance-floor bop? ‘Wrapped Around’ – tick.
In fact, with its bass drops and whirling strings, little stops ‘Wrapped Around’ from being a Dua Lipa song – save for Michaels’ unique vocals, also ultra-visible on ‘Pessimist’. Her delivery – dropping from high-pitched haze into scratchy pop-punk and whisperpop that occasionally sounds as if she’s trying to blow air into a particularly tough wad of bubblegum – stands out in an era saturated with similar-sounding artists. But that distinctive identity doesn’t extend to the album as a whole, which feels like a collection of stray songs, nor to her identity as a pop star, probably because she’s too busy fine-tuning the sound of others.
Nevertheless, Michaels’ versatility is peerless. She also knows exactly when to deploy emotion, and how best to brandish her killer lines. And there are plenty of them, from the neat “I took apart my couch cushions looking for my feelings,” to the Pet Shop Boys-esque, “The summer before you / I thought love was Shakespearean / More or less a painful experience”.
Any metaphors tend to be song-sized concepts rather than cliché phrases – on ‘History’, she takes down a medical history of love – while her spick-and-span lines are characteristically candid. “Wish I could be blissfully unaware of where you used to put your mouth,” she declares on ‘All Your Exes’, “and who you write your fucking songs about.” C’mon – we’ve all been there.
Michaels’ superpower is her ability to articulate everybody’s secret thoughts. She claims these songs were too personal to give to anyone else, but she colours her writing for others with the same raw, relatable honesty that wins listeners over in their millions. It’s hard to discern between her personal and universal intimacy.
Still, it can’t be easy to establish a fixed identity when normally you shape-shift behind the scenes. ‘Not In Chronological Order’ wields every pop hook going, with the dexterity of a pro, but the real Julia Michaels remains hard to read.