Most of what you’ll read about Mica Levi is an attack on your self esteem. In 2008, she wrote an orchestral piece that was performed by London’s Philharmonic Orchestra; and at 25 years old, she is currently the youngest musician to ever be an artist-in-residence at London’s Southbank Centre. She also makes her own instruments, and has used them to record two albums of short, spunky pop songs with her band, Micachu and the Shapes. So how old are you, and what have you accomplished lately?
But despite all the pomp that fills her curriculum vitae, Levi’s output with Micachu and the Shapes is decidedly humble and accessible. Her band’s transgressiveness comes not from technicality, but rather in her approach itself. The group’s debut, Jewellery, showed a talented musician approaching pop-punk like a kid in a sandbox; and on her latest, Never, she starts trying to build some real sandcastles.
The album’s first half goes about this by focusing more squarely on her hooks. “Easy,” “Never,” and “Waste” all carry frenetic melodies, but there’s less of the calamity in the background than before. At her best, like “OK,” these new songs resemble some of the best work by Charlotte Gainsbourg. And while the tenor and alto saxophones have garnered nearly comical play in indie circles over the past year, she throws a baritone sax on “OK” as if it’s a tutorial on how to do something alternative without turning into cliche.
“Holiday” is a fun jam that’s all about how much she looks forward to doing work, but I’d be remiss not to clarify how much work Never sounds like—very little. In the only song where she doesn’t seem to be having a great time, she turns “Fall” into a slow-cooking melody of stubborn depression that serves as a useful context for the rest of Never.
Unfortunately, this pop-punk ethos runs counter to any notions of ambition, and Never sees Levi stuck in a moment of flux, wherein she stubbornly tries to reconcile her lo-fi nature with more nurtured songwriting.
“Lo-fi” is a difficult descriptor because it implies a lack of quality, and nothing I say should suggest Levi is not immensely talented. But her nuanced mastery of musicianship does not ask you to reformat your ears upon listening (what’s up, Dirty Projectors), nor does it require exultant participation (I see you, Tune-Yards), or strain technical boundaries to the very brink of discernible hooks (apologies, Dan Deacon). Nay, Levi’s gift lays in kitschy nuance that is inherently pleasurable. And by diving into more conventional songs on Never, she loses a bit of this endearing personality. Kitsch and profundity are not irreconcilable, and maybe the best news is that she still has plenty of time to figure it out.