Here we are once again, with your spur of the moment album review! Okay, maybe not a completely typical album review in the regular, expected sense of the phrase…think of this as more of an analysis of Skylar Grey as an artist, taking in her musical work along the way. I’ve got her debut album, “Don’t Look Down,” under the microscope, though Grey is not exactly new on the scene. Nonetheless, if this is the first mention of Skylar Grey’s name for you, allow me to provide an express lane version of her major milestone accolades as a musician.
First thing’s first: Skylar Grey is actually Holly Brook Hafermann. During her initial leap into “the biz” as a solo artist, Hafermann went simply by “Holly Brook” and released both an EP (self-titled) and full length LP (Like Blood Like Honey) under this name in 2005 and 2006 respectively; her primary sounds back then being aligned with artists like Joni Mitchell and Sarah McLachlan. Even though the arrival of “Don’t Look Down” marks an uncommonly long time since her last release (the first “timing rival” to come to mind being Justin Timberlake and his wait between FutureSex / LoveSounds and the first of his 20/20 Experience records,) and also marks a heavier deviation from her more stripped down music from before, this is hardly a first exposure of Skylar Grey’s new artistry either. One of Grey’s ways to stay active and maintain a decent level of vocal recognition in the ears of the mainstream, was through her feature spots on the tracks of other established artists like Fort Minor, Dr. Dre, Duncan Sheik and Diddy-Dirty Money. More recently, some will probably be surprised to know that Grey was partially responsible for Eminem’s radio smash featuring Rihanna, “Love the Way You Lie;” her co-writer role earning a Grammy nomination and well, sizable bragging rights to say, “Hey, I was in on that!” every time it plays anywhere. These choices in guest spots also help to serve as a pre-cursor and gradual transition for anyone that might feel a bit confused if both debut albums were played back to back for them.
Now that you’re caught up with the past, let’s get back to the present. “Don’t Look Down” just hit shelves on July 9th and at less than two weeks old, this record defies a lot of expectations -both in its musical identity and in its marketing leading up to the release. I would venture to say that all the expected hip-hop and rap influence aside, it probably didn’t hurt Grey to have the names Eminem and Alex da Kid printed on a sticker affixed to the front of the record. Right from the get-go, we see the application of some very high profile names, so if we were keeping score, that’s quite a few points toward easier sales of high volume. Of course, names aren’t the only thing that make an album (thank goodness or the business would crumble under the weight of its own superficiality) and while the A-lister brownie points are a plus, the fact that Grey’s first headlining tour sees her NYC stop slotted at the well-established but more reserved Le Poisson Rouge, and then similarly sized venues in the rest of the country, from an outsider perspective, Grey doesn’t seem keen to abuse the benefits of having mainstream mentors in her corner. This shows a sincere level of respectable humility and reservation, rather than an impulsive gunning for the top shelf of glory at any and all costs; simultaneously revealing that money isn’t at the forefront.
Go to the store or open up iTunes and right after taking note of the very direct image on the cover of Don’t Look Down, the next thing you’re bound to notice is the Parental Advisory / Explicit Lyrics label. These black and white visual disruptors are applied at the discretion of the individual distributor but generally speaking, if its seen in more than one place, chances are the content is probably on the brash side of things and it’s not about one retailer being overly sensitive. Scan the track list and tracks like “Sh-t Man!” act like a clear giveaway to this effect. At this point, questions like, “So why does she swear? Is she one of those ‘I swear to sound tough’ people or is it for a genuinely sensible reason (e.g. a seriously emotional event and subsequent reaction, harking back to this post raising that issue) A quick and easy response to these sometimes off-putting words would be to tell you to look back at Grey’s previous record. Even if “Like Blood Like Honey” didn’t carry the somewhat damning label (damning to younger consumers / their parents) it wasn’t as if the multi-talented songwriter limited herself to rainbows and teddy bears and cotton candy. Her single, “Giving It Up for You” from that album, paints the picture of a somewhat reckless person with matching insubordinate tendencies:
Well I take a lot of medicine I don’t really need I was drinking at eleven getting high at seventeen So now I don’t appreciate the taste of expensive wine
Are you then meant to see Grey as trying to retain some of that edgy, badass angst in her new material, or is the reasoning behind her dirty, raw mouth coming from a different place? After all, I did say that she changed vectors going from Brook to Grey. In fact, there are some who took a listen and think she’s almost taken on too many vectors, with vectors here meaning influences and genres. Take Ted Scheinman of Slant Magazine, who had this to say at the end of his review:
“One wishes Grey would approach her producers and patrons with the same no-bullshit persona that galvanizes her better songs. Does she want to be Sarah McLachlan, Sophie Ellis Bextor, Fiona Apple, Frank Ocean? It’s impossible to tell behind the phalanx of producers”
While I haven’t had the pleasure of interviewing Grey first hand, my personal take from hearing “Don’t Look Down” in its entirety leaves me with this supposition about where Grey was/is emotionally and artistically when this was put together:
Grey is writing about life and uses “Don’t Look Down” to play out the whole roller coaster of its emotions, events, introspection and textures in one fluid sweep.
Scheinman’s observation of a slightly over-chameleonous collection doesn’t come from nowhere, as I can see (or hear rather) how there are quite a few identifiable style-shout outs that seem to pull Grey in a couple different directions; as if she can’t seem to make up her mind about who she is (trying to pay homage to). However, this conclusion is succinctly addressed by Grey in a recent Rolling Stone interview, wherein she explains,
“I believe in hearing more than one song, because there are so many different sides to the album,”
When Grey references “hearing more than one song,” she is talking about the flush of singles she made sure were pushed out ahead of the full launch: Four to be exact: (Final Warning, C’Mon Let Me Ride, Wear Me Out and White Suburban) each accompanied by a video.
Once the record starts relaying Grey’s many intended sides of song, it’s not hard to say an emphatic “oh yeah!” in your head if you had just finished reading up on Grey’s love of quintessential sounds of the 90s: artists like Alanis Morrisette, the Cranberries and Massive Attack, as well as classic artists on the lighter side like Fiona Apple, Joni Mitchell and Alison Krauss. Some tracks practically scream out their influences -like track 4, “Religion.” The song’s “down on your luck” lyrical narrative closely emulates that of Alanis Morrissette’s 1996 hit, “Ironic,” which depicted equally unfortunate (yet not ironic) two-liner scenarios. See this line from “Religion:”
“I saw a man die the day he got out of jail I bought a new car and got caught in the hail.“
This particular track might be one of the most balanced between the catchy and sensitive, out of all of the songs on Grey’s record; unabashedly going so far as to plainly mention God without fear of repercussion, anymore than she’s afraid of openly dropping swear words. To provide a sweet, caring sense of support, while also stating outright, “It’s a fucked up world that we live in,” sets a definite tone of a composer steeped in writings laced with realism, very much akin to her mentor Eminem, circa his most recent release, “Recovery.” Jump to “Don’t Look Down’s” ending tracks, “White Suburban” and its predecessor “Tower,” and things like piano bars and intimate sets, and artists like Alison Sudol (A Fine Frenzy) circa “One Cell in the Sea,” come to the forefront of association.
One could say even though she seems like she style/artist-hops, that this is why: Grey hits upon every human high and low in the most frank and raw manner possible; so much so that listeners can almost feel as though her songs are written to match the “anything goes” flow of everyday living. For example, right after “Religion” is the racy single, “C’mon Let Me Ride.” (See video below) Contrary to its track predecessor, this sexually pumped number has an innocent enough surface refrain but is obviously strewn with a nearly never ending stream of innuendo and metaphors, as well as the occasionally overt sexual language that makes no attempt at subtlety whatsoever.
Note: This video contains uncensored profane lyrics and explicit behavior.
Watch at your own discretion.
Relating back to real life, who can’t say that life can take you from perhaps setting aside time to quietly stay home and self reflect one day and then the next, getting together to hook up with your significant other after a flawless evening out?
Other less narrative based tracks like “Weirdo,” that are more centered on self-description, see Grey being self assured in her own individual and outlier character. However, she expresses this self-confidence with an attitude that inevitably prompts an apathetic stance akin to your average rebellion-tinged teenager, who might be inclined to respond to most inquiries with something along the lines of, “Who gives a f–k?” This might be hardly an eloquent response but, it’s certainly not an uncommon one in today’s adolescent/young adult vernacular. Notice how the overall impression is similar to that of “Giving It Up for You?” Doesn’t seem like Grey is trying to stay a discontented teenager forever but is merely showing that some age-slanted emotions and reactions carry over well into-young adulthood.
The main point illustrated by at least three types of songs is that she isn’t attempting to include all these song structures or artist influences just to show off or just to use as a gimmick toward getting noticed more. Grey’s writing appeals to the realness of life: the words we use, the moods and situations and heavy choices we encounter and how quickly/abruptly the overall structure of change for all of those can occur. This is reflected in how her record is laid out for intended listening.
The fact that Skylar Grey seems to channel so many different artists with each of these shifting “topics,” is just an interesting, coincidental byproduct of her artistic vision -at least that’s how I see it.
Is there something to be said about a musician and their album that seeks to embody the unpredictability of life so well, that it defies expected conventions of thematically organized record production? It’s refreshing to see an artist who has worked out how to “crank out” a commercially compatible song or five, while staying true to everything that makes her who she is, whether that makes for a pretty tune, a contemplative ballad or an aggressive rant.