English pop musician Mika first made a splash in 2007 with surprise hit Life in Cartoon Motion. The former Simon Cowell reject, who was bullied through school by his classmates, proved his critics wrong with a sugary blast of positive tunes like “Big Girl (You Are Beautiful),” “Grace Kelly,” “Lollipop” and “Love Today.” The well-crafted songs made it easy to get lost in the melody and forget the painful life events that led Michael Holbrook Penniman, Jr. to that point.
Though the singer-songwriter never lost his glittery edge, Mika’s next three albums got progressively darker. His fifth album, My Name is Michael Holbrook, seems to address his upbringing head-on rather than through a complementary narrative or someone else’s story. The result is mixed bag of bass-hitting thumpers, intimate piano ballads, disco-tinged synth-pop and various colorful embellishments—ranging from children choirs to retro Italian lounge a la Phoenix on Ti Amo.
Thematically, My Name is Michael Holbrook makes sense. It scores the story that Mika is telling. His goal was to look inward at himself as a man—and he’s done it. Sonically, the album can become a bit jarring as his five-octave voice is sometimes the only thing that connects the album’s 13 songs.
On opener “Tiny Love,” he sounds like both Freddie Mercury to Elton John, from the bombast of the Queen frontman to the delicate balladry of the Rocket Man. He’s clearly happy, singing about a love that grows stronger every day.
Mika’s sexuality wasn’t widely known 12 years ago, though he sang about a character Billy Brown, who was unhappily married to a woman. Follow his coming out several years ago, he now sings about his affections in the first rather than third person. That openness explains why “Ice Cream” has sexual innuendo to spare. Sporting all the proper elements to be a hit since it released last summer Mika finds support amid organ synths, upbeat percussion and a poppy hook as he declares “I want your ice cream!”
Mika’s outlook shifts downward on “Dear Jealousy,” a ’90s tinged pop tune by way of Savage Garden. He’s unhappy with where he has ended up. Jealous of where he was and where he could end up, his negative feelings make it impossible write songs. “Jealousy” becomes a third person in his bed, the the song becomes a list of all the thoughts he needs to change.
The other main character on the album is Mika’s sister, Poloma, who nearly died in 2010 after falling from her fourth story apartment window and impaling herself on a fence post. Mika found her there and he was the one to call for help. He has talked about the traumatic, life-altering experience before, but he addresses his emotions in a song named after her.
“Oh Paloma, the skies have not been kind to you,” the piano-and-strings ballad begins. Mika uses heavenly imagery, referring his sister as an angel with a broken wing. As brushed drumming joins in to the mix and begins the song’s build to a cathartic release, he sings about the sky falling to pieces; “The night our life fell into pieces, too.” The song ends with the emotional line “Fly Paloma!” which Mika repeats.
Paloma reappears in album closer “Tiny Love (reprise).” Mika sings as her: “My name is Paloma and I was born in ’81/ I lived my life, its ups and downs and had my fun/ But now I’m high with a tiny love/ I will stay high.” The line bookends the album opener, on which Mika introduces himself. The reprise is cinematic in scope, with swelling strings, sustained piano notes and flittering synths. A children’s choir appears to declare, “we are giants with our tiny, tiny, love.”
The bottom two thirds of My Name is Michael Holbrook hop around between styles. On “Sanremo” a retro Euro-disco and lounge vibe takes over. The song centers on growing up gay and the intimidation that Mika felt as a youth. The hopeful, flirtatious “Tomorrow” is one of Mika’s best songs, while “Cry” comes with a glossy nighttime sheen. “Platform Ballerinas” is a female empowerment anthem akin to “Big Girl (You Are Beautiful),” though its more inclusive to all women who don’t fit a specific mold.
One of the album’s pertaining notes comes on ballad “I Went To Hell Last Night,” where Mika finds hope even after following someone special to hell: “When you’re dark, and you’re sad/ And your future’s just as bad/ there’s a little bit of God in everything.”
That’s the message Mika clings to after examining himself.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.