The lives of novelists, filmmakers, musicians, and athletes have often been fodder for great works of art. But it’s possible that Operation: Wake Up, this odd little concept record from Mike Posner, is the first attempt to turn the slings and arrows of being a pop songwriter for hire into a meaningful narrative. Posner has had success with self-referential projects in the past; his biggest hit to date is 2015’s “I Took A Pill in Ibiza,” a clever, catchy bit of trend opportunism released at the height of America’s EDM boom that memorably began, “I took a pill a in Ibiza to show Avicii I was cool.”
This time out, Posner — who has written for Maroon 5, Justin Bieber, and many more — plays himself out in L.A. for a week to do some writing for “other, more famous artists.” He’s staying in a big, rented mansion, trying to recover from a breakup, and marinating in the loneliness and alienation that shallow SoCal glitziness so often inspires in people searching for L.A.-inscribed concepts. On the smooth, forlorn “Once in While (Mike Meets Jessie J),” he goes into the studio to audition material for the British pop singer: “She’s thinking that I’m lame as fuck/So I’m gonna sing her a song that I already wrote and pretend I just made it up,” Posner asides. We hear him try out a skeletal acoustic version of a big pop ballad, assuring Jessie J, who appears on the LP, that it’ll sound better when she does it. And lo and behold, it does: On the next track, Jessie J and Posner perform the finished version, which seems passably radio-ready enough, except Posner hates it (“kind of a knockoff of Leonard Cohen’s style,” he says in a sung-spoken interlude). Things descend from there. Posner meets his longtime friend and collaborator Blackbear, also working as a hired-gun writer, who tries to cheer him up over a falafel dinner with the promise of a raging party at Mike’s rented house. Posner takes some drugs (occasioning a reference to his signature hit), wanders rooms of strangers trying to chat him up about their tedious projects, and his ex turns up unexpectedly.
Shockingly, that doesn’t go so well either (see “High & Low (on LSD)”), and eventually the story gets so dark that Posner has included a mental illness trigger warning with the album’s promotional materials. The whole arc takes place in just 36 minutes, its mix of B-plus-list star self-indulgence, Eminem-ish rap-sung self-laceration, El Lay malaise, and desperate tone suggesting a goth version of an episode of Entourage. That’s fitting, considering Posner’s journey from Duke University frat guy to bro-ish Top 40 interlocutor, though the kind of heavy emotional impact he hopes to gesture toward never really materializes, despite his best efforts. In any case, let’s hope the next pill he takes makes him feel better.