Mica Levi has been busy. In the three years since her last full-length release with friends Marc Pell and Raisa Khan—a trio better known as Micachu and the Shapes—the composer/producer/songwriter extraordinaire has put out everything from an acclaimed film score (for 2014’s Under the Skin) to a surprise mixtape (Feeling Romantic Feeling Tropical Feeling Ill). Somehow, between DJing gigs and doing production work for a grab-bag of vocalists and instrumentalists, Levi found herself in the studio with Pell and Khan for little more than an impromptu, unadulterated jam-sesh lasting several hours. In the midst of some very weighty, meticulous projects, Levi’s reunion with the Shapes was starkly organic. And it might’ve been simply another case of lost, ephemeral musical magic had it not been for Marc Pell’s own surreptitious recording of the entire session, which would come to be the catalyst and basis for Micachu and the Shapes’ newest album, Good Sad Happy Bad.
The thirteen-track collection is unabashedly home-cooked, which plays a large part in its charm. That’s not to say that the songs aren’t all clearly refined, but they retain a lo-fi aesthetic that could easily lead one to think these are just really great demos. It’s pure Micachu in its avant-garde approach to pop, but it’s a little more approachable than they’ve ever sounded. Take, for example, opening track “Sad.” It’s sparse and repetitive; lines like “When I feel sad” and “It’s gonna be okay” are reiterated several times in a row over a rinky-dink electronic beat that almost sounds like something out of an arcade game. It comes off as a bit of sound the band were just toying around with, yet it’s inescapably poignant.
As always, achieving total effortlessness demands a fair amount of effort. The band took their time mixing the tracks and it’s evident every step of the way. “Thinking It” combines a tightly catchy beat with subtly weird sound effects all layered under a spoken normcore narrative about going for a mediocre run, eventually exposing how bizarre the desire for a long life truly is. There’s a little bit of everything here, with grating noises akin to pig-squealing in one track (“Unity”), followed directly by a romantic, acoustic guitar-led ditty (“Peach”). Elsewhere, “Oh Baby” pulls off an industrial minimalism with scratchy vocals like some sort of post-Yeezus Robert Pollard track.
Through all this, Good Sad Happy Bad maintains its pop core. In fact, the closing song “Suffering” is perhaps one of the album’s catchiest tunes, and its most conventional, although there are still very few elements actually at play within it. In a musical landscape that’s highly polished and dense, this record seems a rather bold statement from a self-described pop act; after all, paring down can often require a lot more confidence and chops than doubling up. But really, it only makes sense for Micachu and the Shapes to re-emerge in a year of ostensibly great pop music with a very strong offering of their own subversive and ever-interesting version of pop.