Is a concert really so different from church? If you’ve attended both functions and felt a similar glimmer of something—humanity, joy, meaning, etc.—then you’re likely to respond with “No.” Whether people congregate in the name of God or guitar chords, it’s a means of connecting with oneself and something bigger. And there is perhaps no secular artist more aware of this synergy than Maggie Rogers.
The now-Grammy-nominated pop singer, while attending a 2016 songwriting masterclass in college at NYU, famously overwhelmed Pharrell Williams with her sensational folk-pop song “Alaska.” Since then, she’s released an EP and her debut album Heard It in a Past Life, toured them relentlessly, weathered the cultural upheaval of the last two years, and graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a master’s degree in Religion and Public Life. Rogers is quite literally an expert on how spirituality intersects with community. But Rogers’ HIIAPL follow-up, Surrender, doesn’t explicitly spend much time working through that idea, or get lost in trying to understand the wild course her career has taken. Rather, Rogers simply follows her instincts. She gives in to her desires and her ideas by way of dance-y pop tracks and Americana-inflected notes packed with joy and truth. The resulting album still leaves plenty of room for spiritual experiences, but it twinkles with something you won’t find in most houses of worship: uninhibited freedom.
There’s no doubt now that the now-28-year-old would’ve found her way into the spotlight even without that serendipitous moment in an NYU classroom six years ago. “Alaska” was just a fast track to where she is now. After a hectic few years of touring, the Maryland-born Rogers headed for Maine, where she recorded some songs in her parents’ garage, laying down the others at Electric Lady Studios in New York City and Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in the U.K. Rogers goes big on Surrender. Even though we won’t hear all 100 contenders Rogers wrote in recent years, the melodies, ideas and emotions on the songs that did make it onto Surrender are all newly expansive, driven by one defining question: “Oh, could you just give in?” In a culture that constantly tells us not to feel too much or be overly emotional, to fight off ugly urges, messy feelings and embarrassing joy, Rogers asks us to surrender to it all.
The desperation in Rogers’ desire to let go can be heard in every song on the album, which swings between heightened, blazing indie-pop—something in the neighborhood of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—and twangy, alt-rock-ish swagger, like if PJ Harvey and Regina Spektor hung out with Wilco for a day or two. For the first time, Rogers sounds completely unbound. She opts to explore the rough edges of her voice over investing in the smooth pop sheen of HIIAPL songs like “Say It” and “Retrograde.” On Surrender opener “Overtime,” she simultaneously masters a lower register and belts above the noise; on “Horses,” which is like a city-slicker cousin to The Chicks’ “Cowboy Take Me Away” she sings with full force, unbothered by any imperfections. And her chants of “Are you ready to start?” on “Anywhere With You” are urgent and fueled by the assertion, “All I’ve ever wanted is to make something fucking last,” which also feels like an apt thesis for an album about searching for something real.
Rogers’ upcoming fall tour is coined “The Feral Joy Tour,” and Surrender certainly sources plenty of elation, namely from Rogers’ own cool indifference to anyone who might not vibe with her loud new persona. While HIIAPL hinted at a few flings, Surrender is drunk on love and desire, and is therefore both more sexually explicit (as on “Horses,” where Rogers admits to “thinking of you giving head”) and realistic ( like on “Want Want,” a song that doesn’t try to hide how horny it is).
There are more happy truths to be found on two songs about friendship, a topic Rogers has gracefully addressed before on her love letter to platonic comforts “Dog Years.” She shouts out the friend who’s there when shit hits the fan (and who entertains some lewd Robert Pattinson fantasies) on “I’ve Got a Friend,” and weathers pandemic summers with a squadron of pals on “Be Cool,” in which she longs to “be a teenager drunk on the month of June” and “overload the speakers” with Britney Spears hits. Both the latter and “Honey,” which features instrumentation by the great Jon Batiste, are buoyed by the sounds of ’90s soft pop. Lead single “That’s Where I Am,” which practically bursts with optimism even in the midst of heartbreak, sits atop them all (and is enjoying its status as one of the best songs of the year).
But there are still flashes of anger and sadness mixed in with hope and harmony. On the synthy, shreddy “Shatter,” which features the characteristically otherworldly cries of one Florence Welch (who happened to be recording at Electric Lady at the same time as Rogers, leading the two to lend vocals to each other’s records), Rogers alludes to simpler times in 2016 (perhaps the last time any of us felt true peace?). “And I’ve got all this anger trapped so deep inside / That started burning the summer my heroes died,” she sings. “And I just wish that I could hear a new Bowie again.” On “Different Kind of World,” Rogers confesses, “My knees are breaking / Back is breaking / Thinking ‘bout the state of the world.” But her remedy for this uncertainty and agony can be found in the album’s constant reminder to honor the love and community that hold us up even when the world cracks and shakes beneath our already-tired feet. “When we’re riding together / It’s a different kind of world,” she responds.
While it’s perhaps Rogers’ most thematically complete work to date and the highs are unforgettable, Surrender occasionally slips into flat territory, leaving Rogers teetering between pop oblivion and true transcendence. Like HIIAPL, it is somewhere in the middle, and her Now That The Light Is Fading EP still contains some of her most immediate work. But even if Surrender and HIIAPL aren’t 100% dynamite from start to finish, it’s clear Rogers is consistently capable of creating special (and yes, spiritual) moments in pop music. On Surrender, Rogers is in communion with her collaborators and her listeners, and that’s a path to something lasting.
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.