Sunday, October 29, 2017

album review: 'skin & earth' by lights

So I'll be the first to admit I've been really hard on Lights in the past, the Canadian indie synthpop artist who has fluttered around the edges of the mainstream for the past few years now, especially in Canada. And for me it can feel awkward because I keep getting the feeling that I should like her work more than I do. The Listening was a slice of bubbly, exuberant electro-pop, Siberia was moody and experimental as it fused in dubstep, and Little Machines split the difference between the styles... and yet I'd struggle to say that outside of isolated moments that these records just never quite connected for me. The framing of the writing and Lights' delivery never quite meshed with the synth tones she chose, and in years where there was an abundance of artists pursuing similar sounds - particularly CHVRCHES - I never thought her material stood out.

But I've covered a lot less synthpop in the past year - hell, in 2017 I've barely covered the genre at all - and so maybe without my own personal saturation I'd find something distinct and special on this project, which Lights herself has described as her most carefree and fierce record to date. Okay, I'm in the mood for some pop like this in an increasingly dour year, what did we get?

Folks, I dunno what to say here - I go in expecting synthpop because I've heard so little of it in 2017... only to discover that this isn't really a synthpop record. I guess I shouldn't be surprised by this - Lights has always hewed pretty close to conventional pop music, even at her most experimental... but let's not mince words, you could place this record in the pack with Alessia Cara, Tove Lo, and Halsey and you wouldn't be all that surprised. Now to be fair I'd say Lights is overall better than all of those artists I just named, but if our spectrum for this style of pop runs from Lorde on one end and Daya on the other, Lights is firmly in the middle of the pack - maybe stretching into the better tier with Zara Larsson, but unfortunately slipping more towards conventionality as you dig deeper into the record.

And believe me, I don't want to have to say this, because Lights is the sort of artist I'd like to support more often: she's got an open, bubbly charisma that feels more earnest and sincere than many of her peers, helped by the fact that her vocal tone is naturally better and more expressive. In terms of emotionality I tend to place her in a similar category as Carly Rae Jepsen, but Lights plays with a certainly unearthly, fantasy-inspired style that does help her stand out and can anchor points where she brings more intensity, of which she's definitely capable - when she chooses to couple her album release with a post-apocalyptic comic book series, that makes sense to me. It's just a shame, then, that with few exceptions her producers don't seem to be giving her much that's all that distinct in pop production - yes, Corin Roddick of Purity Ring is behind the boards for one song, but if I told you the majority of the producers here also worked on Halsey and Dua Lipa's debuts, sonically it would not surprise you. Now that's not saying this is bad - the brittle tropical bounce of 'Until The Light' has some decent groove, the muted twinkle of 'Morphine' is certainly pretty, the ebbing, slightly offkilter bassy synths of 'Moonshine' work, as do the ghostly pianos of 'Almost Had Me', and the twin punch of 'Savage' and 'New Fears' with the darker, heavier groove and a more established guitar line is easily the high point of the project - but between the trap hi-hats, the pitch-shifted vocals, and how most other tones can feel swamped in reverb or blurred into some underweight melody that translates into unremarkable hooks, this is a pop sound that feels distressingly conventional and not especially flattering or memorable, especially for an artist like Lights who you can tell is aiming higher. Take a song like the haunted murk of 'Magnetic Field' with the guitar line - for as spooky as it's trying to be lyrically, the production never really has any sort of edge. Or take the lead-off single 'Giants', which unfortunately might be the weakest song on the project as the guitars echo across verses that don't remotely fit with the lumbering, blocky hook. 

But fine, there are moments I genuinely like from Lights that rise above a lot of her pop peers... and that's when we hit the lyrics. Now again, apparently this is a project with a comic tie-in that tells more of the story behind the record and probably fleshes out more of the details... but since the full comic line wasn't available at the album's release, I need to consider the self-contained album on its own. And you know what, credit to Lights for actually trying to incorporate a distinctive metaphor into each individual song - it's not particularly layered or all that deep, but again, I can see some vestige of ambition here. But from there, there's not a lot I can really praise about the writing and structure of this record, because if there's some narrative stretching across this album, I'm not seeing it, and that's before you get songs like 'New Fears' that definitely imply something as part of the story but don't really tell more of it on their own. But fine, let's take the narrative out entirely and just consider these as pop songs... and honestly I'm not really wowed here? Lights is definitely convincing playing big, earnest emotions - the reason why 'Savage' manages to transcend some lyrics that could feel a little adolescent is her intensity - but it's hard not to get the impression that her partners aren't exactly giving of themselves in the same way, which leads to the trio of toxic relationship songs that end the record, with 'Magnetic Field' showing her getting sucked back in, 'Fight Club' having her push back, and 'Almost Had Me' shows the complicated feelings around the breakup. But in the middle of the record... outside of the more developed central metaphor it's hard not to see these as your by-the-numbers 'outcasts-run-wild pump-up anthems' that lack the specifics to cut more deeply. And again, Lights is good at these tracks, but if this album was to tell a story or feel more self-contained or help these songs stand out more, the writing had to step up with more detail in order to flesh out that narrative or add layers of complexity, or the production had to get weirder, and since neither happens, none of it really grabs me.

But as a whole... look, I've been sitting on this review for some time, I've wanted to like and support this record, and I feel like I've been really hard on Lights as an artist. But it's all rooted in a feeling that I want to like this a lot more than I do: a good lead performance can only elevate pretty conventional production and pretty decent writing for so long, and without a real edge or greater self-contained detail, it doesn't quite stand out. It's definitely passable, so I'm giving it a strong 6/10, but again, I wish I liked this more. At this point in her career, I'd like to see Lights buck the traditional pop architecture - it's not really doing her any favors and artistically I think she's moved past it - but as it is... eh, we'll see what happens.

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