Before finding mainstream success in the musical dramedy series Glee, Lea Michele earned her vocal pedigree in the theatre, landing her first role on Broadway at the age of 8. Despite her subsequent commercial success in the film and TV industry, Michele hasn’t forgotten where it was she honed her craft and she has sought to pay homage to her musical roots with her second solo album, Places. Places draws its title not from the geographical locations one comes from, but the call of “places” that is made backstage immediately before a performance commences.
With her 2014 début, Louder, Michele’s vocal prowess was somewhat hidden, pushed back in the mix and overwhelmed by big beats and tonnes of musical gloss. From the outset, Places distinguishes itself as a far more mature album, with the layers of commercial production stripped away, replaced by more traditional orchestration – plenty of piano and strings – and Michele’s voice rightfully taking centre-stage. Lead single, Love is Alive, immediately establishes the tone of the record, sounding like a song from a musical’s soundtrack.
This tendency to sound like a soundtrack to a musical is perhaps the album’s greatest weakness. While the songs – especially standout track, Anything’s Possible – conjure images of grand, larger than life performances with swirling choreography, the songs lack a larger context, an overarching story, to truly enthrall and engage the listener. Michele’s articulation and richly theatrical vocals on Anything’s Possible demonstrate that she is the real deal as a vocalist, but the song’s booming chorus is the record’s only truly catchy moment.
Heavy Love features woefully underworked lyrics, while the score at the chorus is overworked, shortcomings that are amplified by the fact that the track is followed by the tightly focused Proud, which finds the balance between Michele’s pop sensibilities and tendency to theatrical exuberance. Believer sees a hint of emotional breakup in Michele’s vocals, and it is a shame that Michele doesn’t allow such grittiness to creep into her performances more often.
As with Louder, Places closes with a song about her partner, and Glee co-star, the late Cory Monteith. Opening with a pleasant piano riff that repeats throughout, Hey You musically builds and releases over its three minutes in expert fashion, and Michele’s vocals take on a sweet and delicate quality while maintaining the strength evident in the preceding tracks. Despite Michele’s amazing vocals, Places just doesn’t cohere as a pop album leaving the listener feeling as if they have experienced only half of the performance.