Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Skin&Earth | Lights

It's an ambitious move to create a concept record that lives in a fictional universe but is meant for mainstream consumption on this planet, especially when creative complexities overpower the record on its face. Dramatic story lines, overwrought characters, and songwriting contexts are revealed through social media posts and music videos at most, oftentimes leaving the concepts behind concept albums far too vague to digest before they're abandoned partway through a promotional cycle. Required of successful concept album creators are the willingness to immerse themselves into their fictional world completely and the determination to see the project through.

This being said, it's understandable why it was quite a shock to the system when singer-songwriter Lights, a charmingly low-maintenance synthpop artist who has inched herself closer to mainstream pop over the past decade, unveiled her fourth studio album through an intensive illustrated Instagram scavenger hunt earlier this year. Written from the perspective of a mirroring protagonist, Skin&Earth is an escapist pop project that is a derivative of an accompanying self-written, self-illustrated comic book series of the same name. In short, the six-part series follows a young girl in search of happiness in a wasteland nation.

And the record opens with a skydive into the thick of it, quite literally. Opening track "Skydiving" pulsates under Lights' tumbling vocal runs: "You said to me, 'Get a little unruly. No guts, no glory.' You got me skydiving," she sings as she plummets head-first into her make-believe dystopia. Although most of the record's tracks can exist independent of the comics' storyboard and pull towards mainstream appeal, the album as a whole does act as a product of the series' adventurous story arc. And to much surprise, the approach works because the record shares the comics' sense of adventure and optimism – and luckily, optimism isn't out of character for Lights.

The pick-me-up anthem, a staple of her craft, isn't entirely abandoned amid her comic books' underdog story. Though carrying a tempo change that makes for an awkward disconnect between its verses and its triumphant choruses, "Giants" best reconciles what she's known for and what she wants Skin&Earth to be. But in separating herself from her character, even if slightly, she is able to produce tracks that she may not have before. Never before one for a straightforward love track, she makes just that with "Kicks," a bright track that adheres to current electronic dance music. She also lets the clicking high-hats and darker synths roll on the album's ode to making history, "We Were Here."

Oh, and speaking of being en vogue, Lights now sits at the cool kids' table, banking behind-the-scenes collaborations to bend her sound towards a few different variants of glistening, radio-pleasing pop without becoming gimmicky or redundant. After having scored writing and production credits on Katy Perry's latest album, Purity Ring's Corin Roddick claims responsibility for the dancing tropical drums and groovy synths on Lights' trendiest track to date, "Until the Light." Meanwhile, Josh Dun steps away from Twenty One Pilots to drum on "Savage," a surprisingly bitter track with alternative rock undertones, and Big Data produces the jolting "Moonshine."

Packed with current production and melodic songwriting but embedded in the story board of a comic book series, Skin&Earth was wedged in a strange position from the beginning. Lights' goals seem to head in opposite directions: She aims not only to unleash her most accessible record to her biggest audience reach, but also to burrow into an existing niche audience that will purchase and adore both the comics and the record. And she happily dances the fine line between those goals throughout the album, creating 14 enjoyable tracks that can take dual meanings and provide equal entertainment to committed fans and casual listeners alike.

Skin&Earth is available now under Warner Bros. Records.

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