Review: Flume, Skin

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The first thing I noticed about Skin, the sophomore release from Australian electronic artist Flume, was its eclectic supporting cast. You’ve got pop stars like Tove Lo (actually, she might be the only “star” credited here, but I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to these singers I’ve never heard of before) career feature artists like Kai and Aluna “The Main Reason Why That One Disclosure Track Was Good” George, and rising hip-hop stars like Vince Staples, Vic Mensa, and…wait, is that Allan Kingdom? On the same track as most-assuredly-not-rising star Raekwon? That’s a little surprising—hold up, what’s Beck doing here?

The logical question to ask at this point is: how can Flume take these musicians from such wildly different backgrounds and put them together into something coherent? The short answer is that he can’t. Or maybe he can, but he doesn’t display that particular talent on Skin. “Smoke & Retribution” is the worst offender on this front, playing into the well-worn trope of hip-hop tracks with jarringly out-of-place choruses, an art perfected by Eminem sometime between 2004 and 2010. Vince Staples gives it his all (and to his credit, he’s got plenty of talent to spare), but the energy of his verses fizzles out immediately once Kučka, in her second feature on the album, delivers an overly subdued chorus while putting on what sounds like her best Anna Wise impression. The vocal styles clash instead of working with each other, and as a result the two high-potential features (I ripped on Kučka’s voice there, but she sounds rather nice on “Numb & Getting Colder”) cancel each other out and create a strange, almost unpleasant piece.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh by opening on such a negative note. Flume is a great producer, as evidenced early on by the album’s first couple tracks. Opener “Helix” is a great reminder why the drop is such a mainstay in EDM, but it’s admirable in its refusal to go the conventionally danceable route; it takes a good minute and a half to reach anything close to a traditional buildup, and another minute after that to set up the payoff. In an age where so much electronic music is rooted in instant gratification, I appreciate an artist who’s willing to take his time. “Never Be Like You” tones things down, settling into a well-orchestrated pop groove with diverse synth instrumentation and the overall feel of a live mix. It’s at #58 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the time of writing, but I expect it to climb the charts in the coming weeks.

If Flume either kept up this level of proficiency through the whole tracklist or trimmed it by four or five songs, we’d have a noteworthy release on our hands. But Skin is ambitious to a fault, as its motley crew of collaborators and 16-track length prove, and some of the choices Flume makes on this album make very little sense. Why is “Innocence” six minutes long (the longest track by a considerable margin) when it shows its full hand within the first two minutes? And why, conversely, is the mesmerizing instrumental track “Pika” just under two minutes long when it feels like it’s building up to something even more exciting? Why does Vic Mensa sound so out of his element on “Lose It”? Why does the beat on “Lose It” sound suspiciously like Kanye West’s “Feedback”? Who could have possibly OK’d the “I feel like Nagasaki, dawg/I’m ‘bout to drop the bomb” lyric on “Lose It”? Seriously, what’s up with “Lose It”?

Again, though, this is all a bit unnecessarily harsh. I’m sure Skin will have plenty of 2016 summer partiers dancing like there’s no tomorrow. The album makes excellent background music, too (apart from the musically interesting but hard-on-the-ears instrumental “Wall Fuck”), and there are a few standout tracks hiding in the filler (the first half of “Tiny Cities” has some good melodic variation courtesy of Beck, and “You Know” is my favorite hip-hop cut here). Skin is the sound of Flume reaching for great heights and almost grasping what he seeks there. But I worry for him; in today’s electronic landscape, with new hopefuls emerging from the SoundCloud assembly line every minute, second best doesn’t always cut it. B MINUS