Breakout electronic albums are notoriously difficult to follow up. After the initially small release of Flume’s self titled debut album blew up, he has become one of the most popular electronic artists in the world, and as such, finds him serving many masters on his follow up, Skin. Instead of just creating music he likes, Flume (Harley Streten) is now expected to recreate his initial success, but also to advance as a musician and stylist. Unfortunately, being pulled in many directions ultimately becomes Skin’s undoing.
Lead single Never Be Like You is a perfect example of the album’s issues. In a pre-release statement, Streten stated he wanted to explore new and interesting textures on Skin, but those textures are nowhere to be found. Instead, he melds the “wonky” drums he popularised on his first record with fairly generic synth pads and catchy vocals from singer Kia. Her contribution is strong, and her lyrics express a pained regret with impressive specificity – “I’m falling on my knees / forgive me, I’m a f**king fool” – but the instrumental backing feels extremely generic, as though Streten felt the need to sand the edges off his sound to fit it on pop radio.
The same issue arrises on several other songs. Say It is stronger, with more production flourishes complimenting Tove Lo’s sensual vocals – “let me f**k you right back” – but the track feels like it lacks a sense of identity. The chorus is irresistibly catchy, but that’s all down to the vocal melody. Streten’s contribution just feels pedestrian, and marks a notable downturn from his innovative productions on early tracks like Sleepless and Drop the Game. Tracks with misjudged collaborators fare even worse. Closing track Tiny Cities features a flat, emotionless performance from the usually excellent Beck, and it’s a particularly sour note to end the record on.
However, the tracks on which Streten allows himself to experiment with his style a little bit fare better. Wall F**k is easily the most interesting song on the album, with Streten abstaining from traditional melody to explore almost atonal territory. It’s very reminiscent of alternative R&B producers like Arca or NGUZUNGUZU, and shows what Streten can accomplish when he sets his mind to it. The two songs featuring Australian singer KUČKA are also standouts, as her airy voice allows the production to be foregrounded. Numb & Getting Colder features some expressive vocal samples, and KUČKA’s trap-esque trills fit well with the off-kilter percussion.
Skin feels very much like a record torn between two masters. Streten is obviously aiming for radio success (and has largely found it), but has to sacrifice much of what made him distinctive to get there. However, he also occasionally explores more industrial and abrasive textures, and shows off his sadly untapped potential. Before the release of the album, Streten released a 4-minute “Preview” of the album, cutting together instrumental snippets of various songs, filled with creative textures, and heavy, punishing beats. It felt like an exciting kaleidoscope of synths and samples, and held great promise. However, much of that preview is nowhere to be seen on Skin, and has been replaced with fairly middle-of-the-road pop music. Streten is more than capable of creating interesting, exciting music, but Skin is not it.