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Mika’s Enjoyable Jumble

Kristen Grieco (COM’07) says Mika, who recently released the British pop album Life in Cartoon Motion, does best when he stays upbeat.

Mika’s latest CD, Life in Cartoon Motion.

Students taking the summer CFA course Arts Criticism: From the Old Media to the New, taught by lecturer and arts critic Bill Marx, honed their review-writing skills. BU Today will run these reviews periodically.

Every summer needs its head-bopping, toe-tapping, road trip soundtrack, and this summer Mika’s Life in Cartoon Motion is it. A mature alternative to the ubiquitous pop hits by music’s megastars, the album is full of upbeat tunes that conjure up the ghosts of disco and ’80s pop; even a casual listener can hear strains of Queen and George Michael.

“Grace Kelly,” the first track, is a campy, radio-friendly song with an addictive beat. “I could be hurtful/I could be purple/I could be anything you like,” the lyrics say, and Mika proceeds to prove it with the next 12 tracks. There’s a little something for everyone, although the serious topics of the downbeat tracks seem laughable, or at least out of place, after “Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)” — a song about Mika’s love for overweight women — or “Lollipop,” which features a chorus of schoolchildren as backup singers and lyrics about sucking on a lollipop.

Mika is the stage name for Michael Holbrook Penniman, a 23-year-old Brit who was born in Lebanon to a Lebanese father and an American mother. He debuted in 2005 with the song “Relax, Take It Easy,” which samples from Cutting Crew’s “I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight” and would fit perfectly into the soundtrack for the kitschy club movie A Night at the Roxbury. On Life in Cartoon Motion, Mika wrote or co-wrote the majority of the tracks and borrows heavily from pop icons already out there. The addictive catchiness of the tracks might have something to do with Mika’s previous occupation as a jingle writer who penned songs for Orbit gum and British Airways.

The album is filled with personality — several of them, in fact — and when I finished listening, I found myself hoping that Mika himself wasn’t as unbalanced as he sounded. Taken as a whole, the varied beats and messages on the CD might be a tribute to manic depression or schizophrenia. Still, Mika proves that crazy can be fun, at least when it’s confined to music.

While the album starts by working the listener into an upbeat frenzy, it slides into mellower songs with darker lyrics about two-thirds of the way through, a jolting transition. It’s almost like crashing down hard from a sugar high. The song order — fast, slow, fast again, slow again — inhibits the flow of the CD, and the songs don’t seem to have much of a relationship to one another, but taken on their own, they have their merits.

“My Interpretation” would replace Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know” or Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” as the newest breakup anthem, if I had anything to say about it. This song contains less anger and more nonchalance than those two, a balance we all wish we could achieve when running into an ex. “Cause I don’t care if I ever talk to you again/This is not about emotion, I don’t need a reason/not to care what you say/Or what happened in the end,” Mika sings brightly. Oh, to have the opportunity to see my ex-boyfriend and throw that in his face with a smile on my own — so much better than hate and vitriol.

Stick to the first few tracks during your road trip (particularly “Love Today,” which demands that everybody have a good day and provides them the upbeat soundtrack for it) and give the rest of the album a listen for variety. Be careful at the end: “Happy Ending” is anything but. Mika disregards the positive spirit of his other songs to lament the fact that there is no such thing as a happy ending; life, it seems, is a series of disappointments. It’s a downer that made me flip back to the first track so I could bop my head to “Grace Kelly” again.

Though the combination of songs is a bit jumbled, it mostly works. Coming down from the high of the first few poppy tracks, the slow, haunting beat of “Any Other World” and the show-tune-like “Billy Brown” may be out of place on the CD, but they are timely and meaningful, respectively taking on the difficulty of being an idealist in today’s war-torn world and closeted homosexuality. Mika’s songs may be poppy, but it’s clear from his lyrics that his head isn’t empty.

Kristen Grieco (COM’07), a freelance writer for several local newspapers and magazines, will complete her master’s in journalism in August.