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Like much of the world, I became an Ingrid Michaelson fan during the fall of 2007, when her newly re-released Boys and Girls began garnering radio play. At the time, I was a college freshman at Liberty University who had also just discovered Twilight, so my impressions of romance were both over-spiritualized and over-dramatized. “The Way I Am,” a catchy song with whimsical lyrics (and bongos), was refreshingly void of both of those qualities:
This song challenged my formative understanding of love. It lacked the grandeur I assumed was inherent of romance, but it was also strikingly honest and unwaveringly optimistic. Much of Michaelson’s early work was similar, and fans began to associate her with an unusually simple sweetness. It was such simplicity that created a unique believability about her music. Because her declarations of “forever” were made with allusions to such ordinary things, they seemed more durable to me.
Michaelson’s most recent album, It Doesn’t Have To Make Sense, stands in stark contrast with the understated optimism that colored songs like “The Way I Am.” It is not only sonically different—more squarely pop than her singer-songwriter beginnings—but also thematically perpendicular to her early music. During the more than nine years that separated her debut album from this one, Michaelson married, suffered health problems, cared for two sick parents, buried her mother, and eventually divorced her husband. If songs like “The Way I Am” and “You and I” rendered love as a series of ordinary sacrifices that culminated in forever, It Doesn’t Have To Make Sense is the echo of that love after it has faded.That is where ‘Boys and Girls’ and ‘It Doesn’t Have To Make Sense’ intersect: in the space between what love should be and what we’ve made it.
True to her signature transparency, Michaelson does not shy away from exploring the darkness wrought by such life-altering seasons. Against “The Way I Am” and its disarmingly honest picture of love, for instance, “Hell No” stands out as a spunky break-up counterpart. It plays like the sort of conversation you might have with a friend after getting dumped—half bravado and half sincerity:
The rift between Michaelson’s optimistic early work and It Doesn’t Have To Make Sense is made increasingly apparent through most of its other tracks, too. “You and I” made love look simple, if not easy, but songs like “Drink You Gone” bring a different sort of levity to the notion that forever is the natural conclusion of love:
How do broken hearts get strong?
Tell me how do broken hearts get strong?
I remember when we used to say
forever babe, forever babe.
The picture painted here seems to butt heads with the one I connected with in 2007. Michaelson’s appeal was her honest depiction of what romantic sacrifices looked like; her songs were less likely to entail becoming a vampire and more apt to mean loving someone through baldness. Michaelson did not make love look grandiose, but she did make it look doable and worthwhile. It Doesn’t Have To Make Sense is heavily informed by the fact that commitment is more complicated than that.
And yet, Michaelson’s earliest work was not dishonest; I can confirm after only five years of marriage that love is scarcely glamorous. Sometimes my marriage vows manifest in candlelit dinners, but more frequently they come to fruition in mundane sacrifices of the utmost importance, like those she mentioned in “The Way I Am”:
I’d buy you Rogaine when you start losing all your hair.
Sew on patches to all you tear.
Such simplicity is raw and good and true—even if it’s not the whole truth.
In a way, It Doesn’t Have To Make Sense is not so at odds with Boys and Girls as it first appears. It is not a contradiction, but an addendum: Yes, love is powerful and good…but it is also messy and hard. No, love does not fail…but sometimes we do. The whole truth is neither that love is simple nor that it is imperfect. Rather, love is perfect, and our renderings of it are not. That is where Boys and Girls and It Doesn’t Have To Make Sense intersect: in the space between what love should be and what we’ve made it.
Fittingly, then, despite its themes of loss and grief, It Doesn’t Have To Make Sense is speckled with hope. Even where there are weary laments, pinpricks of light filter through. Mingled with anger, sadness, and regret of a failed love are acknowledgements that at least some of it was good anyway:
Well you’re not what I was looking for
but your arms were open at my door
and you taught me what a life is for
to see that ordinary isn’t.
And perhaps that is the broader picture of Ingrid Michaelson’s music: Life is filled with ordinary things that are anything but, for better or for worse. Michaelson’s grief is much like her hope: simply stated and paradoxically complex.
It Doesn’t Have To Make Sense does not attempt to draw any conclusions from grief or loss. Instead, it lets both simply be what they are—which is why this album can coexist with Michaelson’s earlier, more hopeful musings. She does not attempt to make loss and hope mutually exclusive experiences, but seasons that sometimes intersect. In this, Michaelson has achieved a continued commitment to honest music: her unflinching attitude that goodness and brokenness can mingle to form an inherently earthly dissonance—one with hope of resolution.
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