Maggie Rogers’ newest release, Notes from the Archive: Recordings 2011-2016, as the title suggests, is a compilation of songs from the wildly successful artist whose first EP came out in only 2017. Since then, her singles have been remixed by the likes of Tycho, applying Rogers’ smooth-as-butter voice to the dance floor. An album, Heard It In A Past Life, came out in 2019. All things considered, it seems a bit early in the artist’s burgeoning career to be releasing what might be called a retrospective of past, perhaps overlooked songs, not to mention that Notes from the Archive: Recordings 2011-2016 is accompanied by a commentary version, in which Rogers outlines each song’s role in her development. It’s an interesting choice for a second record, bespeaking either ambition or vanity. Maybe both.
The expectation, too, is that these recordings might be a more intimate look at Rogers’ songwriting process: a series of under-produced one-offs and sketches. While this may be said of the version with commentary, the album itself is just the opposite. What we have here is a lengthy album of fully developed and produced songs that might prove to be the next standard for pop-folk. There’s something to these soaring tracks that aren’t offered by those of Rogers’ contemporaries. It could be many things: her undeniably warm, consoling, deep vocals, her knack for imbuing her sounds with drama, or simply the fact that these are simple, intuitive songs that succeed in everything they set out to do. Notes from the Archive: Recordings 2011-2016 speaks to the simple truth that it’s not what you do but how you do it that counts.
How Rogers does it works. “Celadon and Gold”, the album’s opener, weaves a flowing vocal melody through a rhythm that stops and starts, accentuating the offbeats. This rhythmic pattern is a focus of the track and its driving force, highlighting the significance of a song’s rhythms relative to its melodies. About halfway through the record comes “Little Joys”, one of its strongest tunes. Unlike much of the rest of Notes from the Archive: Recordings 2011-2016, “Little Joys” takes a slower tempo, settling into a deep groove that compliments the depth of Rogers’ brooding voice. The chorus dabbles in a little Lana Del Rey, particularly in the inflection and darker melody of the vocals.
Rogers’ overall style of pop-folk music, though, isn’t free from derivation. This is not to say that Notes from the Archive: Recordings 2011-2016 is unoriginal, but its sound defines a genre that is formulaic, largely uniform, and riddled with commercial interest. We could go so far as to question the “folk” half of “pop-folk” in Rogers’ music. It can’t just be that she’s a solo artist strumming faithfully on an acoustic guitar for all to hear. Folk music is not reducible to this. With that in mind, Notes from the Archive: Recordings 2011-2016 is a solid pop album, no more, no less.