Four years in the making and three EPs later, three-time Grammy nominated singer-songwriter Julia Michaels has finally released her highly anticipated debut album ‘Not In Chronological Order’ – ‘NICO’ for short. Created one socially distanced session at a time in one of the most unusual years to date, ‘NICO’ is a reminder of why Michaels is so highly renowned in the industry for her songwriting skills.
The album is opened by the aggressively honest single ‘All Your Exes’, a track that immediately draws in the listener thanks to its dark-humour-exuding lyrics and that pop-rock energy that so accurately translates the motives behind its creation; voicing emotions that only a handful would admit to thinking, with this first song Michaels sets straight what her intentions for the rest of the album are: voicing her deepest feelings.
Released two weeks prior to the album, second track ‘Love Is Weird’ sharply switches in tone from the opener to match the softness of its topic. A clear and concise description of what love feels like, the track candidly explores the stages of falling, feeling, and moving on from the past and into something new.
‘NICO’ manages to take the listener on a rollercoaster of emotions, hitting highs and lows like clockwork as the album progresses. And speaking of highs, ‘Pessimist’ is the peak you didn’t know you were hiking to. With a pungent metaphor as the opening line, the song sounds as fresh as the lemons Michaels has been planting since she was twenty-three. Incredibly optimistic for a track whose title is the exact antonym, the syncopated beat is meant to be played from a car’s stereo, windows down as the summer sun is beaming down on you.
Heart-wrenching from the very first note, ‘Little Did I Know’ is a whirlwind of emotions: great in its simplicity, it fills out the space around you as it builds up to the last chorus with a series of beautifully worded verses – Michaels takes it home with the outro, a moment that will have you pawing for live shows to be back thanks to the added dimension provided by the choir-like background vocals.
‘Orange Magic’ and ‘History’ are two faces of the same coin: a love letter to her ginger boyfriend. In the former the singer describes her feelings for him – JP Saxe, fellow artist whom she worked on multiple songs with, the most notable being the pandemic anthem ‘If The World Was Ending’ – as she drops little easter eggs about their relationship that only their most dedicated fans could pick up on; in the latter Michaels enlists a series of questions she would pose Saxe in a stream-of-consciousness-like way, showcasing that need to want to know as much of your lover as possible. If ‘Orange Magic’ is a sunny beach in California, ‘History’ is the quiet bedroom you look down on as you’re spending time with your deepest thoughts.
In the same way, ‘Wrapped Around’ and ‘Undertone’ also exist in the same realm – beat-driven, both tracks refer to past relationships. ‘Undertone’ sounds nostalgic in a way that perfectly conveys the idea of being unable to break away from past relationships and trauma; ‘Wrapped Around’ is an anthem for the bad bitch who finally broke away, all in total Michaels-petty-level fashion because let’s be honest, she probably was too good for him anyways.
Seven months since its release, lead single ‘Lie Like This’ lives up to its original hype. With a retro-sounding catchy beat that makes you want to stand up on your feet and dance, the track is a great way to introduce the second half of the album.
In true Michaels style, the album ends on a brutally honest high-low with ‘That’s The Kind Of Woman’, probably the most noteworthy piece on the project. The most ‘Inner Monologue’ – that’s the title of her previous two-parter EP release – track of them all, in the song the singer goes through a list of all her self-perceived flaws as she makes it clear that “if the me I am walked out that door / that’s the kind of woman I’d leave me for”.So highly personal and yet so universal, ‘That’s The Kind Of Woman’ wraps up the entire record in a bittersweet bow, a reminder of why Michaels undoubtably is such a songwriting force.
All in all, ‘Not In Chronological Order’ feels like the purest love letter Michaels could have put together for her debut: to herself, to her lover, to her fans.
It’s cohesive and organic, each song leaping back to at least another one on the tracklist through lyrical parallelisms and melodic correspondences, making it clear where its title came from. If there was one flaw to it, that would be its length: just a little less than thirty minutes for a ten-track album feels quite too short, especially when the contents are so promising; and yet, in spite of that, each track feels just right.
With ‘NICO’ Michaels comes off as confident as ever, something that shines through in her lyrics as much so as her vocals: done with hiding behind the falsetto she’s occasionally resorted to in the past, she is sounding her best.
Unarguably her finest piece of work to date, ‘Not In Chronological Order’ rectifies Michaels has potential and shouldn’t be underestimated as her own artist. As if that wasn’t clear enough already.
Written by: Benns Borgese