Even if you don’t know Julia Michaels’ name, you know her work. The 27 year old has carved out an enviable career as a songwriter for the stars that began when she was just 14, culminating in two No. 1 hits: Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and Selena Gomez’s “Lose You to Love Me.” Michaels has had less luck when it comes to her own recording career. Her 2017 hit, the playfully damaged “Issues,” was a promising start, and she’d already made enough industry connections to secure a Best New Artist Grammy nomination and well-placed opening slots for Maroon 5 and Keith Urban.
But “Issues” was four years ago, and in the interim Michaels has spoken of bouts of stage fright and a general ambivalence about the spotlight. With Not in Chronological Order she’s finally released her first full-length—though at 10 songs and not quite 30 minutes, it’s barely longer than the most recent of her four EPs. Each of those 10 songs is unmistakably crafted by a pro, and the album has its own sound built largely on soft but insistently strummed guitars layered densely and atmospherically. Michaels’ vocal style—husky and pouty, with shades of Billie Eilish, puts her individual stamp on things.
But that voice doesn’t quite bring these songs to life, or make them feel lived in. A line as great as “I wanna live in a world where all your exes are dead,” for instance, should have more bite. And there’s a dearth of irresistible choruses. It’s possible that she saves the sure shots for her famous clients, or that they call dibs. But what this is feels like is an attempt at an individualistic singer-songwriter album from someone who can’t shake the knack of writing songs that bigger stars can make their own.
You can’t accuse Michaels of not trying. The lyrics strain to demonstrate cleverness (the opening line of “Little Did I Know” rhymes “Shakespearean” with “experience” and “delirious”) or simulate personal experience (“History” quizzes a new lover “At what age did you have sex?/Did you have a teenage phase with cigarettes?” she asks her lover). But the overall effect is neither personal nor universal, proving what you might have guessed all along: It’s harder to record a pop song than it is to write it.