On her second full-length album, singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers proved that the smooth, simple genre of indie is where she shines the most. “Surrender,” released to the public on July 29, is a self-produced triumph that comes a mere three years after her debut, “Heard It In a Past Life.”
An indie-pop performer from Maryland with folk music roots, Rogers went mainstream when she was a senior at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She played one of her own compositions, called “Alaska,” for Pharrell Williams during a master class, and his stunned reaction propelled her to instant acclaim.
Following the success of “Alaska,” she released her debut album. Now, she has dropped her second full-length work, one in which she shows the same authentic, distinct qualities that made Pharrell Williams notice her — and that make her music worth listening to.
She starts off “Surrender” with “Overdrive,” a song that primarily sticks out due to the backing vocals and the lengthy musical introduction that plays before the lyrics begin. As is typical for Rogers, her voice is smooth and steady, and as excellently balanced as all the other components of her work. The long stretch of music before the vocals enter makes the piece the perfect start to the album itself, and the backing vocals are noteworthy without overpowering the other parts of the piece.
She then switches over to “That’s Where I Am” and “Want Want,” two of the album’s three singles. Unfortunately, neither of these songs live up to the standards set by the opening track, because both come across as a bit more experimental and jarring.
The first of the two, “That’s Where I Am,” adds a techno, electronic flair to Rogers’ classic indie-folk sound. The lyrics and instrumentation are just slightly out of sync with each other, which creates a very cool and unique sound. There is a nice guitar break about two-thirds of the way through the song that feels more classically Rogers, but overall, the track does not mesh particularly well with the rest of the album. It is a fine piece, to be sure, but it is nothing exceptional.
“Want Want,” on the other hand, is perhaps the only song on the album that is actively unenjoyable. It feels somewhat rock ‘n’ roll, signaling a departure from the previous songs and showing off Rogers’ genre-hopping abilities. The outro is solid, and the vocals have a tone that is atypical of Rogers. However, these qualities are significantly outweighed by the chorus, which is a far cry from Rogers’ best. Her vocals, normally so smooth and clear, are high and pitchy — a deliberate choice, to be sure, but also not on par with the rest of her work. As she demonstrates in other songs on this album (and in her other bodies of work), she has an excellent falsetto, and messing with it to give “Want Want” a signature sound was the wrong move.
Fortunately, the fifth song of the album is where “Surrender” takes a permanent turn for the better. “Horses” was the third of the three singles released before the album’s release, and it is clear from the very first guitar strum that this song is something special. It hits all the right notes — it is smooth and balanced, elegant yet simple, and undeniably pretty above all else. “Horses” is, in summary, the very best of Maggie Rogers, and its mere presence on the album makes all of “Surrender” worth listening to.
In addition to being a gorgeous song all on its own, “Horses” also sends the rest of “Surrender” spinning down the right path, setting up what is by far the strongest and most enjoyable half of the album. It kicks off with the short and upbeat “Be Cool,” which features the high-quality falsetto that “Want Want” changed up. Though not particularly remarkable compared to “Horses,” “Be Cool” is still another crucially important piece of the puzzle.
The rest of “Surrender” follows a similar trajectory. It never veers too far off the beaten track, but it still feels fresh. Much of that has to be credited to Rogers herself, as she has a very distinct sound and style that makes everything she creates feel both familiar and interesting at the same time. “Shatter” has elements of the rock sound of “Want Want,” but it is significantly better executed this time around. It is less experimental and more set, something that makes the song pleasant but not boring.
That same description — “pleasant but not boring” — also describes “Begging for Rain,” a song that can only be described as quintessentially Maggie Rogers. It has that same simplicity, elegance and prettiness that defines all of her very best work, including the aforementioned “Horses.” Pretty is where she shines, and “Begging for Rain” is a perfect example of that.
The rest of the songs are good, to be certain, but not incredibly noteworthy. There’s “I’ve Got a Friend,” which feels like the music played in any local coffee shop, and “Honey,” which has a chorus that absolutely shines among the rest of the song, elevating the entire thing to a different level. Overall, though, none of the songs on the back half of “Surrender” live up to “Horses.”
Ultimately, “Horses” overshadows every other track on the album by a significant margin. Nearly all the other songs are excellent, but they end up feeling mediocre by default. The entire album, though, is far from mediocre — it is characterized by the same balance that comes through in everything Rogers writes, and it is that balance that makes it so good. For those who enjoy indie-pop, singer-songwriters, and music that feels fresh while also invoking the idea of home, “Surrender” is most definitely worth a listen — and “Horses” is worth two.