‘No Place In Heaven’ Is Mika at His Best (Album Review)
Infused with the kind of vibrancy and color more often reserved for a LSD-fueled dream sequence, Mika first spilled into the mainstream pop scene back in 2007 with his first hit, "Grace Kelly." Comparisons to Freddie Mercury notwithstanding, the general public (at least here in the U.S.) wasn't quite sure what to make of him, oddball pop star sensibilities and all. He arrived with a propensity for the flamboyant, the over-the-top, the theatrical — and he did it all without a modicum of irony or self-parody.
The sincerity in Mika's exaggeration was refreshing because it was new. And even with the release of his fourth studio album, No Place In Heaven, he remains as eccentric as ever.
Pop is often categorized as either bubblegum or mature, as if the two are mutually exclusive. In order to fall into the revered, Pitchforkian-approved group of Mature Pop you need a quirk. You need less color. You need to Say Something. And while the hues in Mika's world have certainly faded a bit with his last two releases (2012's The Origin of Love and 2015's No Place In Heaven), that doesn't make his music any less smart or thoughtful or worthy.
Mika never strays too far from his signature Broadway-lite piano pop on No Place In Heaven. He stays true to his sound, and while for many artists that may signal a lack of willingness to evolve, it works for Mika. He remains firmly rooted in who he is as an artist and he knows what works best for him. That's not to say No Place in Haven is a carbon-copy of his past releases: The true difference here is in the album's overall sense of vulnerability, in its willingness to 'go there' — and that's something that hasn't always been as obvious on his previous efforts.
Those who have followed Mika's career, and maybe even those who haven't, are probably aware of his storybook songwriting. He has a tendency to create fantastical characters, and experiences that often read like caricatures. His lyrics are as bright as his melodies — never too intimate or revealing, maintaining a healthy distance between artist and consumer. Whether that was an unconscious decision on Mika's part or a blatant act of self-preservation doesn't really matter. The songs on No Place In Heaven are more self-referential than we're used to from the singer — and they're all the better for it.
While Mika has always seemed to be a crusader for self-love and self-acceptance, he challenges those notions here. On the album's title track, he grapples with religion and all its shortcomings.
"There's no place in Heaven for someone like me," he sings.
In "All She Wants," he paints a picture of a mother whose ideal son doesn't match up with the reality: "All that she wants is another son." And while there's plenty of opportunity for reveling in self-loathing here, Mika never quite throws himself a pity party.
Sonically, the songs remain largely upbeat, with soaring melodies and blissful arpeggios. There's a defiance that weaves itself throughout the album, a general lack of begging and apologizing that most of the tracks end on, now matter how they begin. Even on a track like "Good Wife," where the narrator is secretly in love with a friend whose wife just left him, there's no telling whether this is anecdotal or not — not everything is autobiographical, after all — but, again, it doesn't matter. It's relatable in its way, the one-sided love affair that fails to dim in its passion, but will never truly come to a satisfying fruition. With a chorus full of sharp falsetto reminiscent of Passion Pit's "Sleepyhead," the song is almost painfully positive in sound, as though to make the point that no matter how much it hurts to be just out of arm's reach of the person you love, somehow, it is enough.
"Staring at the Sun" is where No Place In Heaven falls short. "Here I stand, staring at the sun / Distant land, staring at the sun / You're not there but we share the same one," Mika croons. The track falls into a lazy cliche we wouldn't expect from someone who asked so frankly on just a few tracks earlier: "Where have all the gay guys gone?"
"Good Guys," on the other hand, is as much a commentary on contemporary cultural figures as it is a nostalgic ode to Mika's past heroes: "Thank you Rufus, thank you Auden and James Dean / Thank you Emerson and Bowie for my dreams / Wilfred Owen, Kinsey, Whitman and Rimbaud / Thank you Warhol, thank you patience, thank you Porter and Cocteau." Lazy it is not, an adjective rarely ascribed to an artist as creative as Mika. (Thankfully, we won't need to use it again.)
Mika's musical knowledge is displayed in full force on No Place In Heaven, with plenty of '60s and '80s pop referenced throughout, but he never betrays the signature sound — a melding of the operatic, the theatrical and the decidedly sweet — except, perhaps, on "Promiseland," which may be his most rock-heavy song yet. With lead guitars vaguely reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's "Trampled Under Foot" (if it were to suffer a heavy pop makeover) it's a solid song that doesn't quite fit the tone of the album, and was smartly relegated to bonus track status.
No one has ever, or will ever, accuse Mika of being morose. And even the most somber songs he's written have a tinge of positivity to them. The ballad "Last Party" offers an apocalyptic vision of a celebration timed with the very end of the world — but if that's the case, they might as well have a kick-ass time saying goodbye.
"There's this whole world that goes with my songs," Mika once said in an interview with the Guardian. And while the picture he's painted on No Place In Heaven may be a bit more subtle than we're used to, this world is still very much his own.
PopCrush Rating: 4 out of 5