Review Summary: ....because if you do, all you'll see is the solid ground beneath your feet.
'Re-inventing the wheel'. How does one re-invent a wheel? Clearly, it's a turn of phrase to indicate the re-imagining of a tried, tested, and therefore established device (in this case, pop music), but surely there are only so many things one can do to alter a literal wheel. Change the shape, it wouldn't operate smoothly, so what many musicians tend to do is either jazz up the design with a new paint job, in order to try and pioneer a new style, or add bells and whistles to the classic design in an effort to incorporate new elements into the standard sound. Whilst artists in the pop industry who have attempted this kind of 're-invention' have released their material to a spectrum of reactions from praise to derision, a key fact has to be recognized; at least they tried. This alone deserves some credit, for between the mellow love songs and the hopelessly recycled dance tracks sits those who actually attempt to re-invigorate the mainstream with new ideas, delighting the critics whilst possibly alienating some fans who mistakenly believe such experimentation renders the artist suddenly irrelevant. Don't Look Down
marks Skylar Grey's first full-length release under her current name, and with a notable list of production staff (including Eminem), this could have given the album a brave spearhead into henceforth unexplored musical territory. It may be rather a lot to ask of a pop record, but following the collaboration with Dr. Dre and Eminem on 'I Need A Doctor' and in the wake of Justin Timberlake's surprise joy The 20/20 Experience
, maybe it wasn't so ridiculous to dare to hope that anything could be possible. The good news is, the wheel isn't broken. The bad news is, it's still the same wheel. If 'the wheel' is a metaphor for pop music en masse, Skylar Grey's second album is the tread; revolving along the same road with little deviation and all the more blemishes to show for it.
Don't Look Down
feels incredibly awkward. Tenuous and uninspired melody haphazardly occupy the same space as very very
loosely avant-garde production, giving the album a consistent tone. This may sound like a positive, but the sound grows tedious, and fast, as mediocrity saturates the vibe through laughably cliché and largely overused instrumentation. Right from the off, opening track 'Back From The Dead', (which features both Travis Barker and Big Sean) pads the release with undistinctive filler; complete with a tedious piano loop and a repetitive, jerky rhythm. Even Grey's vocal abilities cannot redeem the track, accompanied by Big Sean's flat verse and faux-needle scratches underneath the beat, which punctuate every other snare with an uncomfortably implemented tic that verges on self-parody. The overused chorus is just as irritating but at least fits in with the aesthetic of the song in that way, repeating itself (somewhat ironically) like a broken record. With an opening as weak as this, Don't Look Down
seems to settle into its underdeveloped niche, contentedly grinning and maintaining the absurdity with such panache one feels a twisted sense of pride through the music, even at this early stage. The bland nature of the music continues into following track 'Final Warning', which emphasizes bass over piano, but much to the same effect. The vocal pattern is slightly stronger but the lyrics are still laughable, with an ungainly vocalization of the tune crowbarred in with all the grift of someone trying to thread a needle whilst wearing oven gloves. The glitchy synth outro adds a touch of differentiation, but is ultimately like adding a cat's eye to a collection of zircon- a spec of assortment it may be, but just as worthless. Falling at the first hurdle, this is the rut the album immediately sinks into; complacent, formulaic song structures that almost seem to strive for sophistication in simplicity. The instrumentation, regardless of type, is layered in the same manner and invites scrutiny on every level; melody, lyrical themes, structure..... and it only goes downhill from there.
'Religion' has a somewhat edgier tone to it, as Grey declares "When you don't know what to believe in, I can be your religion. It's a ***ed up world that we live in". The (brief) use of acoustic guitar conjures up memories of religious groups, singing hopelessly hopeful songs whilst clapping hands and sitting in a circle. It almost surprised me that Grey could exude this feeling of risqué, relevant depth, but just like that, the moment dissolves into yet another massively overused chorus and boring drumbeat. This track brings to light another issue with the album; the use of profanity. It almost seems a perfect metaphor for the release as a whole; it grasps at maturity in the manner of a 12 year old who, rather than demonstrating maturity through works and actions, takes the shortcut. Maybe this is the problem. Maybe Grey is too immature an artist to be attempting this kind of angle, and yet again, the harsh language feels coarse and inelegant in the context of the release, particularly against the attempted stylistic backdrop of the sound. 'Forgettable' doesn't even begin to cover the standard of the tracklist, with the sound merging together in a most unsavory fashion. Even the slower, slightly more ballad-lite tracks such as 'Sunshine', 'White Suburban' and collaboration with Angel Haze, '***, Man!' feature little-to-no spice, plodding with the same indolent configuration. In the case of the latter, the chorus actually demonstrates some (incredibly fleeting) sharpness to its' sound, but it matters not, as all the good intentions are lost in the oil slick of commonness that is drizzled liberally over the rest of the track, and Angel Haze's painfully daft rap verse only makes things worse. Any would-be divergency is rendered irrelevant by the production, which tries to keep the sound slick by attributing the same tone to every single song. There's consistency and then there's stifling redundancy, which would only be half-bad..... if the actual music wasn't just as devoid of change.
The unbelievably twee collaboration with Eminem, 'C'mon Let Me Ride' is a bungling, overtly suggestive composition with very thick production and a horrifyingly aggressive sexual tone. The clipped use of lyrics from Queen's 'Bicycle Race' crosses the boundary from tasteless to just plain insulting, and Eminem's involvement feels so unnecessary that the absence of his input would have made the track no better or worse. In fact, were he not involved, it may have actually added some much needed credibility; at least then, the track would not be recognized as the song where Eminem adds NOTHING. 'Weirdo' is a similarly airheaded exercise in egotism, with Grey insisting she's a '***ing weirdo', despite giving us no evidence of this throughout the rest of the remarkably humdrum content. In fact 'weird' as a quality is exactly what the album is crying out for. Strict adherence to convention isn't necessarily a lamentable quality, but it is somewhat baffling that an artist would want to do nothing to stand out in a market which is saturated with performers doing the same thing, in the same way. As a result, the lack of genuine artistic expression throughout is made all the more obvious since it does nothing convincing to subvert rubric, due to the half-hearted stance the album unwaveringly affects. To give any review space at all to 'positive' moments seems to indicate that I, as a reviewer, recommend certain tracks/ aspects. This is not the case at all. Whatever marginally 'better' moments are to be found on the album are merely positive by comparison, and as such, none are really present. 'Wear Me Out' is the obvious standout, as it actually attempts to traverse the stagnant mountain of drivel the rest of the album embodies. It features a much different and actually more likeable sound than the rest of the album, but still follows the same nondescript, unexciting pattern, albeit in a different manner.
As soon as the first track begins, Don't Look Down
starts digging a hole. By the end of the torturous 50-minute runtime, it's halfway to the earth's core and looking up as though it expects praise. Rather than having the good sense to top itself and hastily spread the dirt over the top, it keeps digging, and digging, and digging. This is what makes Don't Look Down
so frustrating; it tirelessly continues, peddling the vacuous pop music it hopes listeners will respond to. Considering the vast majority of current adherents to the mainstream, it's safe to say that Grey will find success with this release, with the heavy style likely to attract some attention and the heavier language likely to grab the attention of younger enthusiasts in need of something more 'adult'. The hardest thing to accept is how hard it tries; it seems almost unfair to rate the album what it deserves because it so truly feels like genuine effort has gone into the release, however, this doesn't change the fact that the music has virtually nothing to offer. Grey's voice, which is definitely intriguing, is in need of a far better package than this. Given the right direction and a more interesting production style, her waspish yet soothing tones could really flourish and accentuate musical high points. On Don't Look Down
it feels less like an asset, and more like a composite element that just happens to be present along with the rest of the bromidic facets. The emptiness at the heart of the release is so vast and all encompassing it actually becomes a crushing vacuum of banality, as brutally and relentlessly spiritless as modern pop can be. The forced nature of the sound only exacerbates the frivolity, exhibiting less depth than a saucerful of brine, and about the same level of refreshment. Feel free to look down on this album, it's the only way it will learn its place.