Mika‘s gift for melodic, catchy, socially perceptive glam-pop with literate lyrics and operatic sizzle is undimmed on his fourth studio album, No Place in Heaven. His sound has mellowed a bit but hasn’t changed in essence in the three years since 2012’s The Origin of Love reached number one on the charts – the charts in France, not in the British singer-songwriter’s home country, nor in the United States where he remains relatively unknown.
“Talk About You” leads off the new album with an echo of the old Dusty Springfield hit “I Only Want to Be With You,” which charted in 1964. Mika’s sound may be up-to-date, but his pop sensibility indeed extends through the whole past half-century. With its wall of harmonies and yearning for love, it sets a bright tone. But uncertainty – about love, family, and maybe above all, identity itself – are never far in Mika’s songs.
In “All She Wants” Mika uses a Ray Davies-like warble to paint a strangely complex portrait of the narrator’s family life. And “Last Party” with its dark echo of Prince’s “1999” may be the grimmest party song I’ve ever heard. In fact, when the “Last Party” video came out, becoming my first glimpse of the new album, I didn’t get it at first, as I didn’t associate the usually flamboyant Mika with such quiet, contemplative visuals.
“Good Guys” is a literate gloss on (I think) pop culture, nostalgia, and sexual identity. And when the narrator of the title track revisits childhood and considers the ultimate future, he fears that “there’s no place in Heaven for someone like me.”
“Staring at the Sun” is a glittery-smooth dance-floor-ready track with dark undertones. “Hurt” floats a soft melodic ballad on a piano cloud reminiscent of Tori Amos’s breakthrough albums of the ’90s. “Nothing’s only words. That’s how hearts get hurt.”
It may be, these songs suggest, that the only way to escape hurt and exile is to change who you are. The escape fantasy “Rio,” more George Michael via Paul Simon than Duran Duran, pairs a cute rhyme about leaving a bad situation behind with what reads like a challenge to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”: “Maybe I’ll be myself when I’m somebody else.”
Of course, to be a pop star in an image-hungry world is almost always to be “somebody else,” as anyone who’s seen Gaga’s get-ups knows. Mika’s plain white shirt and intense, honest expression in the “Last Party” video look at first glance like they’re meant to suggest what the singer (or the narrator) is “really like.” But on reflection, it’s just another, different image, another self yet again. This time it’s the “Ordinary Man” of the song by that name, who worries that he may be “not as special as I think that I am,” but then realizes, no: “I was ordinary just to you.”
There’s nothing ordinary about this smart Euro-pop – which Mika proves is not a contradiction in terms. The album spears a bright note in a long melody threading through popular music history, a tune that winds among artists as diverse as Dusty Springfield, Abba, and Queen. There really aren’t any clunkers or filler here. Deep into No Place in Heaven we get the angular earworm “Promiseland” and the ode to fragility “Porcelain,” the latter sung in a appropriately flinty falsetto. However fragile Mika’s alter egos may be, his impeccably produced music is a sturdy, polished kind of art, with an emotional transparency more diamond-like than glassy.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00WHZZBJ6][amazon template=iframe image&asin=B0090NNQX6]