Three years ago today, on May 31, 2013, Disclosure released their debut album, Settle. The UK duo’s record came out of nowhere to be one of the defining releases in contemporary electronic dance music, with its guest-centric tracklist and extreme class in making beats and songs that were at once supremely danceable and musically compelling. It’s the standard by which all modern dance records of its ilk are judged, and recently, Flume (aka Australia’s Harley Streten) has taken Disclosure’s approach to highbrow house and fused it with Skrillex’s & Diplo’s dubstep maximalism. It’s a combination that sometimes leads to transcendent greatness; at other moments, it’s gratingly awful. If Flume’s 2012 self-titled debut introduced him to the world of electronic music, then his new record, Skin, is his attempt to take over the world of pop.
My introduction to Flume was his collaborative track with Vince Staples, “Smoke & Retribution”. The song, which also features English vocalist Kučka, is a hood love song that fits in with Staples’ aesthetic nicely. The booming bass drums and glitchy synths on the verses are a cool contrast to Kučka’s silky smooth vocals on the hook. This track is a prime example of how to make a great EDM track with guest vocalists — mold to them, don’t make them mold to you. Flume has never been afraid to add hip hop influence to his records, so it’s no surprise to see rap chameleons Vic Mensa and Allan Kingdom show up. While Mensa’s track, “Lose It”, is underwhelming, it’s Kingdom and Raekwon on “You Know” that really steal the show. Raekwon’s verse is violent and vivid, while Kingdom has really shown a knack for chorus-writing, as seen on not just this track, but collaborations with Kanye West and his own album. But it’s not really Flume that makes the track great, it’s his guests.
The rest of the record is pure pop, and just like the hip hop-influenced tracks, some are far better than others. Lead single “Never Be Like You” is an absolutely stunning dance-pop song, one of the best I’ve heard in recent memory. Flume taps previously unknown Canadian singer Kai for the track, and she ends up breaking through with one of the sweetest and most emotive vocal performances on an electronic music track since Sam Smith’s turn on Disclosure’s “Latch”. Her vulnerability on the chorus (singing “I’m only human/ Tell me everything’s okay”) is undercut with these irregular pulsating synth chords that evoke the image of a nervously beating heart. Look for this single to dominate American Top 40 radio later in 2016.
More pop gold reveals itself in the Tove Lo collaboration “Say It”. The first verse of this song is a deft description of a sexual encounter for Tove Lo, and the hook is incredibly intimate and sexy. Then, in the second verse, she reveals that it was all a figment of her imagination, and the hook takes on a much sadder, desperate tone. Tove Lo’s been an excellent pop star for a couple years now. Just about everything she puts out is solid. The closing track, “Tiny Cities” (featuring indie folk deity Beck of all people) is a twinkly love song. There’s a great musical decision on the hook, replacing what would normally be a synth lead with Beck’s own vocals. It’s a whimsical little pop song, and a great ending to the album.
Unfortunately, Skin has a lot of filler and skippable moments. The instrumental tracks just aren’t quite interesting enough musically to keep me engaged, especially without lyrics or a story. “Helix” is fine enough as a grand, expansive opening track, but “Wall Fuck” and “3” just don’t add enough to the album — which is already an hour long. In fact, the only instrumental song that I truly enjoy is the jittery, cute “Pika”, but it’s over in under two minutes, leaving me wanting more. In terms of vocal tracks, the only real disappointment is “Innocence”, with AlunaGeorge. This song is awful. There’s no established beat to it, no danceable groove, and the vocals are entirely anonymous. I understand wanting to utilize a big guest like AlunaGeorge, but at a certain point, Flume needs to understand that it’s not worth it to put such a misstep on what will likely be his breakout album.
Much of Skin is a satisfying and engaging listen, and the highlights (“Never Be Like You”, “Smoke & Retribution”) combine the best aspects of the guest vocalists with Flume’s own talents as a producer. These moments, unfortunately, only make up about a third of the album, making the rest sometimes feel like a slog, longing for the next transcendent moment. While Flume is a much more creative and interesting producer than pop mainstays like Avicii, Calvin Harris, and David Guetta, he still frequently falls into that trap of commercialism that prevents him from taking many risks. The hook of “Never Be Like You” goes “I’m only human, can’t you see/ I made a mistake/ Please just look me in my face/ Tell me everything’s okay.” Skin is very human and contains many mistakes, but just about all of it is still at least okay. He’ll never be like Disclosure, but to be the pop star he wants to be, he really doesn’t have to.