opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN
Everything and nothing is surprising about Sky Ferreira’s career. Courted by a major label via MySpace in her teens, demos left to languish on execs’ hard drives: it’s a story we’ve all heard before. Ferreira fought valiantly to get her music heard despite the Man’s disapproval, but this development, too, is just another tired one in a stale narrative. Ferreira’s go-to interview move is to discuss how her first record was shelved because she “wasn’t going to be what they wanted me to be,” and how she still struggles to be taken seriously, but come on. Who really believes Capitol could be strong-armed into releasing a record they couldn’t sell for profit?
And boy, have they sold it. Ferreira’s constant return in interviews to the theme of marketplace politics, albeit in the guise of disdain for marketplace politics, makes it difficult to approach her much-delayed, oft-retitled debut LP Night Time, My Time from a perspective that isn’t preoccupied with questions of who this music has been made for and how it’s reaching them. Is she dating Zachary Cole Smith from DIIV because she’s cool like that, or is she cool because she’s dating a guy on Captured Tracks who vaguely resembles Kurt Cobain? Yeah, it blows (no pun) that she got arrested for heroin possession and that it earned her so much negative press, but she also won’t stop talking about how frustrated she is by the publicity surrounding the arrest, which is the same as contributing to the publicity surrounding the arrest. “The timing couldn’t have been worse,” she recently told Pitchfork, but of course, the timing really couldn’t have been more perfect. The #NSFW album artwork was shot in a Parisian hotel bathroom by controversy-baiting French film director Gaspar Noe, which has been touted as rebelliousness squared, but the takeaway for me is that Ferreira swims in circles that include Noe – circles that don’t come cheap. The bad girl with a heart of indie rock? The teen prodigy who stood up to corporate bigwigs to follow her dreams? The long-suppressed artist finally getting her due? I mean, really, of all drugs it had to be heroin? (R.I.P. Lou Reed.) This is a character we’ve paid to believe in a hundred times before, blog buzz honed in a hundred hype cycles. So that we might consider Night Time, My Time the way it deserves to be considered, let’s all make a pact to cut the crap. This is medium-budget, major-label pop music from a performer subject to all the economically motivated image-manipulation as other major-label pop singers and shouldn’t be treated as anything else. That which is a novelty on certain niche tastemaking sites is, in the context of the grander 2013 mainstream pop constellation, nothing inherently special. Yeah, Ferreira writes all her own songs. You know who else does that? Taylor Swift. Ferreira recently attacked the sexist notion of the male-steered female pop ingénue in an interview, which is absolutely valid. I’m not contending that Ferreira’s not in a position of relative creative control here, or that she had any less of a hand than co-writers/co-producers Ariel Rechtshaid and Justin Raisen in Night Time, My Time. I’m just saying that the hand she did have in its creation must necessarily have been one that the people upstairs gave the go-ahead to, and therefore we the public should be warier than we have been thus far of attaching much importance to the fingerprints.
So the angle this time around is the rebellious ‘90s girl spiking the punch at the chart-pop party (the press release from the label namedrops Britney Spears, Madonna, and Courtney Love in a single breath), and the title of the record has that possessive emphasis, which suggests a creative team aware of and learning from its weaknesses. 2012’s Ghost EP was scattershot, sounding exactly how you’d expect an EP to sound when each of its five tracks gives its producer slot to another, far more established artist (Rechtshaid, Cass McCombs, Blake Mills, Jon Brion, Shirley Manson, and Dev Hynes all contributed). There’s Sky Does Country, Sky Does Fiona Apple, Sky Does Garbage, and Sky Does Robyn, but very little Sky Does Sky. Even the EP’s addictively catchy sleeper hit “Everything Is Embarrassing” sounds awkwardly like Sky Does Solange. On Night Time, finally, Ferreira sounds like one person with multiple dimensions rather than five people with one dimension each, and honestly this synthesis leads to a consistency that’s refreshing in a way the particulars of the schtick aren’t.
Because it’s still first and foremost patische: Sky Ferreira circa 2013 sounds an awful lot like Reign Of Terror, MS MR’s “Hurricane,” Lana Del Rey, and above all else Ferreira’s evil British twin model Charl XCX – all of which themselves are best described as “sounds like X+Y+Z” whether they have all the creative control (XCX) or none of it (Del Rey). Ferreira’s music sounds strikingly of her time, which is to say that she sounds so strikingly of a bunch of other times, all at once. Night Time, My Time sounds like a deliberate and even laboratory-engineered cross-pollination of sounds: say, ‘80s bubblegum and new wave via ‘90s alt-rock and girl-groups via late-‘00s Jesus And Mary Chain worship via Robyn via Icona Pop’s XCX-penned smash “I Love It.” The story behind this music isn’t as new as it’s been made out to be, and neither is the music itself, but at least it’s consistent in the sources it chooses to echo.
There is one surprise here, though, and it’s that “Everything Is Embarrassing” hasn’t been taken as the model for Ferreira’s sound. Indeed, it’s Ghost tracks “Lost In My Bedroom” and “Red Lips,” the Shirley Manson collaboration, that have the longest afterlife on Night Time, My Time. In fact, though the new album catches Ferreira doing shower-singing imitations of various predecessors (Cat Power on the title track and Suicide on “Omanko,” two of the worst songs here), there’s no one she resembles so much as Manson. Ferreira has the same femme fatale vibe, the husky drawl that segues into a haunting wail, the same psychologically tortured persona, the same faux-provocative urge, and more than anything else, the same fervent, ingenuous desire to wed the leather-jacket attitude of alternative rock to the conventional pleasures of danceable pop. Like Ferreira, Garbage also made dark, pastiche pop that had the taint of “inauthenticity,” and Night Time, My Time sounds also sounds a lot like a prime-era Garbage record in the sense that while it’s hardly original, when it works, it works damn well.
Ferreira proves an astute student of rock, and the best decision she, Rechtshaid, and Raisen have made is to imbue even the fluffiest, most effervescent songs here with a dark, fuzzy, booming low-end that blesses them all with some serious ass-kicking wallop. Opener “Boys” kicks in the door with a stomping beat, a shoegaze band’s worth of feedback squall, throttling treble guitars, and simple, lovelorn sing-song lyrics. It’s got more than just shades of “Rill Rill,” “Hollaback Girl,” and most Brooklyn bands in 2008, but that’s the sort of critical quibble that bothers you only when the song’s not playing. Not all of Night Time, My Time is as good as “Boys,” but it’s a good template for much of what follows. The opening five-song run, through the album’s vaguely Spice Girls-esque pinnacle “I Blame Myself,” is the record’s best stretch, sounding like five variations on a single airtight pop song with the rock influence turned up or down to different degrees. It’d make a killer EP.
Unfortunately, Night Time, My Time goes awry at “Omanko,” a grave misstep that verges on parody. From there on out, the record’s spotty: single “You’re Not The One” plays like a poor man’s “Dancing On My Own,” but it’s got a wonderful, seemingly endless hook on the refrain that never fails to induce a bit of vertigo; “Kristine” is not very good but it is, at least, supremely weird; “I Will” is a guitar-laced anthem that’d fit right in on the much stronger Side A. The rest of the second half, though, is tedious, overly solemn, and sometimes just plain silly, and it only serves to underscore Ferreira’s posturing. Ferreira is a big-time pop singer in indie rock’s clothing, and she’s the most entertaining when she stops trying to make that costume convincing. When she finally realizes this, I bet she’ll make one hell of a pop record – I hope it gets released. [C+]