Lea Michele has a nail-you-to-the-wall set of pipes that helped Fox's Glee, the show she anchors, become a television phenomenon ... and made her a star. She's been nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes. And in 2010, she was selected as one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World. As Rachel Berry, she charmed audiences and her co-star, too: Her relationship with fellow Glee actor Cory Monteith, both on and off the screen, became the talk of Tinseltown.
Michele's first studio album, Louder, was supposed to be just another stepping stone on her way to even greater superstardom. But tragic circumstances turned its release bittersweet.
Michele finished the album in June 2013. About a month later, Monteith was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room. The cause? A lethal concoction of heroin and alcohol. Michele reacted by chosing to delay the album's release.
But life, of course, goes on, just like the show. So eventually Michele released the collection—after adding a few more songs. "Now that I had this experience happen to me," she told reporters, "we decided to write about it. We decided that's what felt organic." She later said in a separate interview with The Washington Post, "I didn't record one word I didn't feel."
Michele's connection to her music is most obvious in two of the newer tracks—including the first single, "Cannonball." She heard the song (written by Sia Furler) a month after Monteith's death and felt an instant connection with this anthem of resilience amid tragedy. In it, Michele confesses she was "scared to death" and "losing my mind." But eventually she finds the strength "to get out into the world again." Later, she adds, "And now I will start living today/ … I got this new beginning and I will fly, I will fly/I'll fly like a cannonball."
"If You Say So" was co-written by Michele and based on the four last words Monteith said to her. "Can't get those words out of my head," she says. "Seven whole days, seven whole days and four words/ … I lie awake/And the fallen hero haunts my thoughts/How could you leave me this way?" Though it's not a particularly positive song, it does speak poignantly and honestly of Michele's great loss.
Indeed, most of Louder's songs are about love—be it love lost or, in the case of "You're Mine" and "Don't Go," joyously found. "You're Mine" relishes a relationship brimming with honesty and trust ("And I told you all my dreams and fears/And you looked at me and your eyes filled with tears/And you said those three words I'd been waiting for"). The song also pledges lifelong devotion with, "You're mine, for life/Hold me until we die/I'm yours and you are mine."
"Empty Handed" ponders, "If I fell into you, would it be close enough?/If I finally let you in, would you show me what love is/If I had nothing to give?" then answers, "If you came to me empty hearted/I'll find the pieces to make you whole."
The title track encourages listeners to "come out of the shadow/Step into the light." It echoes some of Glee's better themes—to be willing to take chances and be yourself. "I just wanna hear your voice," Michele sings. "Don't be afraid/Why don't you scream a little louder?"
"Gone Tonight" compares Michele's cried-out eyes and wrung-out emotions to a hard night of drinking: "How did I get hung over without a drink/Why are my eyes so bloodshot/Why do they sting?" "On My Way" involves an ill-advised relationship and more alcohol metaphors: "My heart's too drunk to drive/I should stay away from you tonight/But in this blackout state of mind/Baby, all I want is you tonight." Not only does she ignore her own internal warnings, she's not listening to anyone else's either: "And no wise words can stop me/I'm past the point of no return/No matter how it hurts me/I'm running to you."
If that wasn't self-destructive enough, Lea sings on "Burn With You," "There's a white light/And it's calling me/And it's promising ecstasy/But I don't wanna go to heaven/If you're going to hell/I will burn with you."
"Battlefield" includes one of the album's few allusions to sex, where Michele sings that "lust has turned to dust." Meanwhile, "What is Love?" talks of physical intimacy that's detached from real relationship in a line that could actually be construed as positve if taken the right way: "What is love/When you don't know who you're lying next to?"
If Glee tells us anything, it's that sometimes the most heartfelt emotions must be sung, not said. Mere words cannot always express rapturous joy or crushing heartbreak. Sometimes only music, with its uncanny ability to tap into pure emotion, will do.
There's definitely no shortage of crushing heartbreak (as well as moments of rapturous joy) on Lea Michele's debut effort. It's a savvy musical package filled with anthems and ballads in the mold of Katy Perry (and scores of other pop songstresses). Ironically, however, even though Louder is, by Michele's own admission, a deeply personal endeavor, it often feels somehow … generic. It's as if Lea's production team took the album's title to heart, making the whole thing bigger and bolder and shinier and more professional, even as they somehow failed to infuse it with much genuine connection.
As for the Louder's content, it's not nearly as racy as Glee itself. There are some issues to be navigated, to be sure, namely some allusions to alcohol and a smattering of sensual references. Most of the time, however, Michele's lyrics just focus on love—the good, the bad, the painful and the tragic.