Photo Credit: Tatemcrae.com
With the breakthrough success of Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour came a wave of copycats – and copycat accusations. Tate McRae, who you may know from her viral hit “You Broke Me First” has been on the receiving end of umpteenth such accusations, and her debut full-length I Used To Think I Could Fly is unlikely to quiet the chatter. Over 13 tracks that mostly clock in at under three minutes, McRae briskly sings of first loves and breakups in broadly relatable terms.
Critics looking for a work that equals or exceeds Sour will be left unsatisfied. I Used To Think I Could Fly covers the similar thematic ground but does so largely without the same discerning eye to detail that defined Rodrigo’s debut. The emotional drama of Sour is here, but whereas that album made listeners feel as though they were reliving the intense highs and lows of young love, I Used To Think I Could Fly will remind anyone older than McRae’s 18 years how detached they are from this period of their life. Across 13 tracks McRae moves back and forth from confident declarations to an ex that “I’m better off” to worrying that “I might die” without them. But lacking the astute lyricism of Sour or the dynamic voice of Rodrigo, listening to Fly can feel more exhausting than exhilarating.
Perhaps this is because, despite its title, Fly never really takes off – and it’s not for a lack of sonic variation. On her debut, McRae fleets with impressive confidence across a range of soundscapes; sampling Nelly on “Don’t Come Back”, infusing trap on “What’s Your Problem?” and going pop-punk on “She’s All I Wanna Be.” But McRae’s vocal range is too limited for Fly’s ambitious scope, and the seemingly never-ending list of big-name producers and writers credited on the album has the effect of anonymizing McRae.
I Used To Think I Could Fly fares best in its most subdued and introspective moments – which there are unfortunately few of. “Hate Myself” succeeds in examining mutual faults in a failed relationship, rather than falling into tired arguments about who was wrong and who was right. “Boy X” stands head and shoulders above the rest of the tracklist, for its ability to showcase emotional maturity while losing none of the emotional intensity. It also has one of the more interesting narratives here, as McRae sees an ex move on and sincerely hopes that he treats his new girlfriend better than he treated her. It exudes the sort of radical empathy showcased in Fiona Apple’s showstopper “Ladies.”
What’s notable about “Boy X” is that compared to songs like “Don’t Come Back” and “You’re So Cool” – which were the result of a team of 11 and 7 writers and producers, respectively – it was the result of just McRae and one co-writer, and one producer. It shows that when Tate McRae isn’t surrounded by dozens of big names trying to compromise her sound in the name of commercial viability, she can create something genuinely compelling and emotionally resonant.