What do the hit songs “Sorry” (Justin Bieber), “Love Myself” (Hailee Steinfeld) and “Used To Love You” (Gwen Stefani) have in common? They were all written by one of the most prolific songwriting connoisseurs in pop music today, Julia Michaels. She’s the invisible music-making machine behind artists like Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Dua Lipa, Demi Lovato and nearly every other big name in music. With an extensive, top-charting discography under her belt at only 27, Michaels’ voice inconspicuously dominates Spotify playlists and pop radio. Although she has written professionally for artists since she was a teenager, the singer only made the leap to become an independent artist in 2017 when her smash hit “Issues” was too brilliant and too personal to give away. Since then, she’s released three critically acclaimed EPs, and on Friday, April 30, the iconic songstress released her debut album, “Not In Chronological Order.”
In a way, this album isn’t really her debut. Her first EP “Nervous System” was a cute little warm-up lap for the following heavy-hitting sister EPs “Inner Monologue Part 1” and “Inner Monologue Part 2.” Put the inner monologues together on one playlist and that is Michaels’ real debut album. All the songs are about herself; she sings about anxiety, body image, fury at men and all her hot takes on relationships and exes. But getting to know her is more than just the content itself; it’s the way she crafts phrases with care and finesse that showcases the seasoned, poetic professional she is. “My friends, they wanna take me to the movies / I tell ‘em to fuck off, I’m holding hands with my depression,” she quips in “Anxiety.” Michaels turns pain into humor like nobody’s business in moments like “Happy,” singing, “Don’t kiss in front of me, it makes me sick / I’m not bitter, well, maybe a little bit.”
The queen of pop songwriting shines in these EPs. From start to finish, the two projects are an unbridled stream of consciousness woven with lyrical and musical mastery. The production is one-of-a-kind, incorporating both live instrumentation and traditional pop sounds. It has a living, breathing relationship with the writing, heightening the intensity of every line. She’s confessional, self-deprecating, raw and witty with no trace of a filter.
“Not In Chronological Order” is a whole different Julia. This time around, she’s madly in love with J.P. Saxe—there’s no more clever rage, no more signature pessimism and with the exception of “That’s the Kind of Woman,” not a whole lot of introspective moments where she makes astute insights about herself. Every other track (nine out of the 10) centers around her boyfriend, which makes for a cohesive album, but previous EPs better introduced us to Julia as the emotionally complex but painfully relatable person that she is.
“All Your Exes” is the transition track between the two inner monologue EPs and “Not In Chronological Order.” In classic Julia fashion, the song opens with sweet vocals and a simple guitar riff before erupting into a pounding bass line and the dark humored hook, “I wanna live in a world where all your exes are dead.” We get a teeny bit of angry Julia back, but she’s an in-love angry Julia so the lyrics are more humorous than heartbreaking. The track is funny, dramatic and rooted in live instruments like the content on the inner monologues. “All Your Exes” is Michaels at her finest, and certainly an album highlight.
If “All Your Exes” captures the old, familiar Julia, “Lie Like This,” another single off the album, embodies her fresh sonic style the most. “Lie Like This” is a pure dance single loaded with synths and electronic drums. It’s flirty, light-hearted and all about letting yourself freefall into romance. Her lyric game is as fearless as ever on this tune with witticisms like, “He says I’m emotionally sound / Emotionally fucked too.” “Lie Like This” thrives as a single, easing us into this more fun, more dancey and more sexy era.
The last single before the release of the album was “Love Is Weird,” yet another highlight of
“Not In Chronological Order.” The production emulates the weirdness of the ebbing and flowing of relationships, balancing a simple guitar riff against eerie operatic background vocals and velvety reverb. The sound is new but her observations remain deliciously descriptive and sage: “Love is weird / Don’t know how I wound up here / Love is weird / It shows up and disappears / Love is strange for some / It ranges from makin’ love to tears.”
There’s not a bad track on the project—Michaels isn’t capable of writing anything less than impressive. However, “Undertone” and “Wrapped Around” are probably the least exciting contributions to “Not In Chronological Order.” While the lyrics are still woven from gold by the veteran wordsmith and the production is still dance-invoking, the concepts feel recycled. These are the tracks that could’ve used just a touch more of Michaels’ flare to match the distinctive personality of the rest of the album.
“Little Did I Know,” the album’s token ballad that was notably co-written by Saxe, is a “Lose You To Love Me” moment (the Selena Gomez hit written by Michaels) and shows off the breadth of what Michaels can accomplish as an artist. We’ve heard the catchy pop hits, but in this grandiose tune she reaches new vocal heights. Although writing is like breathing for her, Michaels can also sing and she’s audibly more confident in her endearing, breathy tone that spills earnest emotion all over the place with every note. “Orange Magic” and “History” are also objectively high-calibur songs about love, but similar to “Little Did I Know,” they lack the dark, sarcastic one-liners that made fans originally fall in love with the artist. They’re great, but just not as enthralling and cheeky as “Happy” or “Falling For Boys.”
“Pessimist” and “That’s the Kind of Woman” are the best non-single songs of the album and are tied with “All Your Exes” for the best of the project, singles and non-singles. While “Pessimist” still revolves around J.P., it’s also about the classic bitter, self-deprecating Julia Michaels that fans know and love. “Plantin’ lemon trees since I was 23,” she pokes fun at herself against a breezy, dance pop beat. The hook, “You took a pessimist and turned me into something else” captures how her relationship has affected the evolution of her musical projects.
“That’s the Kind of Woman” is the last track on the record and the only one that’s entirely about the singer herself. Of course, self-examination and leaning into insecurity is Michaels’ magic trick in songwriting, and her voice is old friends with lone acoustic guitar. That combined with the whimsical specificity and radical honesty of her lyrics are what makes her her. The breathtaking verses list ideal personal qualities: “Crosses T’s and cuts her ties / Figured out sympathize from empathize.” They lead naturally into the gut-wrenching hook, “If the me I am / Walked out that door / That’s the kind of woman I’d leave me for.” After this song, dedicated Michaels fans will probably be crying and sighing with a nostalgic flavor of relief. That’s Julia Michaels, the voice for insecure young women everywhere. She made sure to have their backs on this album even though she’s in love.
It will be difficult for Michaels to ever quite match the stunning personality of “Inner Monologue Part 1,” a flawless EP top to bottom, if she and her boyfriend get married (which seems likely). The dilemma is all too familiar for artists who fall deep in love and settle down. Their music almost inevitably suffers from a lack of anger, grief and new stories to tell, unless they’re Kacey Musgraves and write “Golden Hour.” “Not In Chronological Order” is a good album—by any means, a well above-average pop album. Unfortunately for Michaels though, she set the bar astronomically high for herself. And “Inner Monologue Part 1” put the bar in another universe. She deserves to be happy though, so I’ll accept her lovey bops with immense gratitude and turn to the older content when I need to rage.