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The dark edges of Mika's deceptively sunny pop

October 23, 2009 |  7:30 am

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As far as Oedipal odes to obsessively consuming every shred of a new lover’s individual identity go, Mika’s song “Touches You” from his new album “The Boy Who Knew Too Much” is actually pretty charming. It's a rollicking, vampy piano-pop burner with a seriously creepy chorus:  “I want to be your sister, and your mother too / I want to be whatever else that touches you.”

Nick Cave could be jealous of a lyric like that. But for the young singer-songwriter, it’s a prime example of the power of pop music to make uncomfortable truths go down easily.

“Pop enables you to hoodwink people,” Mika said. “If you follow certain formulas and structures, people gravitate to a song and attach themselves to it, they instantly ‘get’ it. And once you’ve got them, you can get them to sing along to something bitterly sad.”

There’s not much that’s bitterly sad on “The Boy Who Knew Too Much,” however. It might well be the most abjectly joyful thing on pop radio right now. But it’s a weird kind of joy, one purposefully preoccupied with the trappings of adolescence -- the terrors of nascent sexuality, hormone-driven defiance and overblown emotions that warrant no less than full string sections to document them.

For Mika, it was a perfect time to write an album about growing up, because in many ways he hadn’t. After the unexpected multimillion international sales of his debut album “Life In Cartoon Motion,” the 26-year-old woke up from a flurry of touring to realize he was, in many ways, right where he left off emotionally. This was a problem, as “Cartoon Motion” was something of a intentional respite from some deep feelings of isolation.

“I’ve never been very comfortable in my own skin. There’s always been a big disparity between my shows and real life,” Mika said. “It felt like my life was on pause. I can’t hold a relationship, and I still live in the same studio I’ve lived in for nine years. Sometimes I wondered if music went all to hell for me, if I would have absolutely nothing left. But I had to remind myself that was the same desperation I felt when I was 17, and that it was OK to still feel that way.”

He acclimated to those feelings by becoming something of a neighborhood eccentric while recording ”Boy,” eating meals at the same time in the same places every day. “The people who ran the flower stand nearby would set their watches to me,” he said.

But the end result is an effervescent pop tableau. “We Are Golden” and “Blame It On the Girls” are pure cynic-Teflon, sneakily perfect tunes packed deep into a confetti cannon. Mika tackles a surprising breadth of genres, from margarita-ready folk on “Blue Eyes” to shimmering techno-pop on “Rain,” but it all plays to his strengths -- namely, his campy falsetto range and knack for wringing instant, sticky melodies out of huge word counts. It’s defiant, flagrant pop music as its own idiosyncratic genre.

“Pop became such a dirty word in the ‘90s. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, pop was glorious,” he said. “Bowie was pop. The Beatles were pop. The thing that kills pop is when it becomes a vehicle for a lifestyle or aspirations. I don’t want to be drinking Moet in videos, I want people to feel OK about themselves.”

For Mika, being a pop star on the cutting edge of is-he-or-isn’t-he sexuality (he’s appeared on the cover of the gay-focused magazine Out but hasn’t publicly defined his sexuality) only underscored the tricky lines he has to walk both in music and as a public figure.

But that’s the power that pop music gives you, he says. It makes big, tough ideas about identity and adulthood a bit easier to grasp. And maybe that makes him a bit more dangerous a singer than you might think.

“I’m a bit of a Cheshire cat,” he said. “The teeth are sinister but the power is in the smile.”

-August Brown

Related: Album review: Mika's 'The Boy Who Knew Too Much'

Mika plays the Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd., tonight. Tickets available via Live Nation, and are $40, not including surcharges.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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