Very few artists have the ability to appeal to both children and record critics. Most music for young people is created by soulless bastards who view music as a business rather than an art (The Chipmunks, New Kids on the Block, N'Sync), while most critical darlings are so wrapped up in being brilliant that they hold no appeal for anyone outside of the ivory tower of rock elitism.
Mika walks the line between childhood and adulthood, but he also walks the border between credible and manufactured. On first listen -- and second and third and fourth listens, too -- his music is bright and energetic and smiley. Yeah, smiley. It just makes you smile. But Mika doesn't stop with the sheen of happiness; he layers some adult themes and emotions just below the surface. At its best, Life in Cartoon Motion reminds me of Looney Tunes' ability to appeal to both kids and grown-ups for similar but completely different reasons.
At its worst, Life in Cartoon Motion is a business endeavor. Producer Greg Wells previously worked with artistically credible acts like Paris Hilton, S Club 7, and Hanson. Mika wrote eight of the 12 songs on his own -- including a few of the strongest tracks -- but his co-writer on the other four was Jodi Marr, whose past work has all the integrity of a Mallomar. (The presence of hitmaker Desmond Child as a co-writer on "Erase" is an additional black mark, and it's not surprising that this is the dullest track on the CD.) Mika's fellow musicians are studio mercenaries like Tim Pierce and Matt Chamberlain, who have four or five dubious credits to their names for every good one.
The music is good, though. "Grace Kelly" is undeniably catchy, and could be permanently ingrained in one's memory as the soundtrack to a great summer. "Lollipop" can stand next to immortal pop songs like "ABC" and "I Want Candy" (both of which I absolutely despise and never want to hear again). "Billy Brown" is a Beatles-esque ditty that celebrates the beauty of love, betrayal, confusion, and redemption. "Big Girls (You Are Beautiful)" is a descendent of Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls," and it does a good job of paying tribute to both it's musical and physical inspirations. The crescendo of "Happy Ending" is a strong closer, and the hidden track that comes after it showcases a side of Mika that is not seen anywhere else on the album.
Life in Cartoon Motion is not a perfect album. Its strongest songs are good enough to be added to the canon of pop music, but its weak tracks are completely forgettable. It's obvious that Mika possesses an interesting creative vision. If he chooses to break away from the formulaic drones who litter every corner of the music industry, he might make some monumental records that would accompany new generations of music lovers on their journey through growing up. Otherwise, he'll probably have a long and successful career of not mattering very much.
It would've scored a 5 if they'd included all of the lyrics. The design and illustration is the perfect accompanyment to the music, and I was disappointed that the booklet was only 16 pages. I would've happily given up a few photos of Mika for another drawing and/or page of song lyrics.
Listen if you like: Queen, Elton John, Rufus Wainwright, teeny bopper pop like Spice Girls or Hanson
If it were food, it'd be: A Mrs. Smith's pie from the supermarket. It's good, but it'd be so much better if it were made with more heart and less need for mass consumption.