MIKA: THE BOY WHO KNEW TOO MUCH *** CASABLANCA/ISLAND, £12.72
MIKA'S back! It's like he's never been away! Rejoice/bang your head off a wall as appropriate, because it takes all of one minute for him to unleash a children's choir on his new album. Happily, though, this lot are not some sickly sweet bunch of toothsome choirboys and girls, but the direct descendents of the bolshy kids who sang "we don't need no education" on Pink Floyd's Another Brick In The Wall.
"We are not what you think we are, we are golden," they yell on his current single We Are Golden, in riposte to a society which finds it easier to demonise young people than try to help them. Superficially, the song paints a carefree picture of jolly defiance ("teenage dreams in a teenage circus, running around like a clown on purpose"). But is that really the teenage experience? Doesn't everyone know that the "best days of your life" are hormone hell? The verses offer a more rounded picture and, buried away in the bridge, is the pain and uncertainty. It is The Boy Who Knew Too Much in microcosm.
On his follow-up to debut album Life In Cartoon Motion, Mika has moved on – but only from childhood to adolescence. The vain hope that this classically trained musician would leave all the kids' stuff behind and unleash his inner Rufus Wainwright is dashed. Mika is still having too much fun at the kids' party to forsake his commitment to a full-on sugary pop onslaught.
This is his chosen craft. The Beirut-born pop dandy has a particular talent for penning melodies from which there is no escape, which might explain why he inspires as much hostility as adoration – damn you, Mika, for inflicting such a pop contagion on the planet. We Are Golden is so infernally upbeat and catchy that it makes High School Musical sound like Leonard Cohen. Mika has actually described the album as a rock opera about his adolescence, and there are a couple of impish showtunes in the mix, such as Toy Boy, a mischievous tale of being used as a plaything.
Follow-up single Blame It On The Girls takes malcontents to task, exasperated with those who seem to have it all (according to the song, having it all equals money and looks) but cannot enjoy it. It's the musical equivalent of those insufferable types who tell strangers to "cheer up, it might never happen".
But Mika knows how it feels to be on the other side. The very next song, Rain, has a good old moan about those duvet days when you would rather hibernate than face the world. But its Pet Shop Boys-style Europop is missing their sense of melancholy, barely scratching the surface of sadness.
Pop lyrics can be simple without being stupid and Mika often treads a fine line. The Afropop-influenced Blue Eyes offers the more resonant reflection that "sorrow is so peculiar, it comes in a day, then it'll never leave you, you take a pill, wonder if it will fix you, then wonder why sorrow has never left you".
Dr John, meanwhile, appears to describe a despairing patient's encounter with a therapist, but the inevitable jaunty piano backing gives it a nudge-wink tone, while Good Gone Girl, a fairly clichd character study in faded glamour and faint desperation, sounds like a refugee from a 1970s episode of Top Of The Pops. For Mika, the juxtaposition of darker subject matter with an almost asinine perkiness is all part of the game.
Touches You is a fruity come-on, which cheekily references George Michael's Father Figure, both musically and lyrically (and the effect is just as smarmy). By The Time, about waking up to find your partner has done a midnight flit, is softer and more esoteric thanks in part to guest vocalist Imogen Heap cooing away in the background. These songs are closer in musical mood to Relax (Take It Easy) from the first album, though it is the candy-coated numbers which are likely to drive you mad with constant radio exposure.
Best of all are those moments when Mika pulls off a bravura vocal turn. Cartoon pop star he may be for some, but he is also a fiendishly gifted singer. For this album, he has somewhat tamed the helium silliness heard on Love Today and the acrobatics of Grace Kelly and demonstrates a beautiful falsetto vocal capable of expressing great vulnerability on the string-soaked, soul-searching I See You and a controlled jazzy swing on Pick Up Off The Floor which rounds off the album with a melodramatic flourish. Couldn't we just remember him this way?
In short, Mika is every bit as contrary and infuriating as he was two years ago. That lack of compromise could turn out to be one of his greatest strengths.