Two music nerds go head-to-head on Flume’s new album ‘Skin’
Three and a half years ago, Flume dropped his debut album and changed the Australian dance music landscape forever. Today he’s delivered Skin, the follow-up Harley Streten says he fought through crippling writer’s block to make.
So just how does Skin stack up? To get the verdict, inthemix Editor KATIE CUNNINGHAM and DJ, New York house veteran and writer JIM POE went head-to-head in a very long Facebook messenger conversation with their opinions of the most anticipated dance release of 2016. Here’s what they thought, track by track.
KC: I was a little bit worried going into this album that it might be straight up pop, because of the lead singles. But it’s not! And I think Helix makes that clear straight up, so I am yay-ing this track.
JP: Second album, first track, you can’t screw it up. And he doesn’t. There’s a lot going on in the swooshing cinematic crescendo of the intro, which goes on for over two minutes before the beat kicks in. It’s like Flume’s commentary on the magnitude of all the pressure on him, all the expectations for this follow-up. It’s kind of cheeky, it’s kind of grandiose, but it works – and it’s a suitable harbinger of how ambitious and rather epic this album is. As you say it’s not pop. It’s music for the masses, certainly, but he’s not gone soft on us.
2. ‘Never Be Like You’ feat. Kai
KC: It feels kind of redundant to go deep on this one, given how long it’s been out. It’s a great pop song and I think it did what it was intended to do, which is top charts and get on radio and bring Flume to a bigger audience. But I don’t think it’s indicative of the sound of the rest of the album and, per above, that is a good thing. I am interested to hear what you think of this one though, because it strikes me as the side of Flume you might not be a fan of?
JP: I like it! Being a lot older than the target audience and generally into more underground sounds gives me a certain detachment that makes a track like this a lot of fun for me. If I listened to the radio more, I’m sure I’d be sick of it already. But hey, if Flume’s going to top the charts, it might as well be this good and ridiculously catchy. As usual his production on this one is better and weirder than it has to be; it’s like this dark and threatening presence behind Kai’s vocal.
3. ‘Lose It’ feat. Vic Mensa
KC: I think this might be my favourite track on the album. Flume works so well with rappers, this track only makes me wish it is something he had done more on the album. But maybe I’m getting greedy.
JP: I’ve always thought Flume should do an entire album of hip-hop, and Lose It shows why. The lushness and expansiveness of the track is a great counterpoint to the rawness of Vic Mensa’s lyrics. I want to live in a world where Aussie electronica and hip-hop from the States clash and fuse like this. But does the fact that it’s your favourite track on the album bode well for the big picture?
KC: I don’t mean it in the sense that it’s all downhill from here, not at all. Even though the topline is pretty unique, the production feels in step with the rest of the album. I think the whole album, with the exception of maybe Say It and Never Be Like You, feel super dark and icy, which I love. Vic Mensa just kills it, I guess.
JP: “Darkness” is definitely something I had in mind when I was listening for the first time. It’s funny, Harley Streten has this very wholesome, boyish image. Has he felt the need to subvert or dismantle that image on this album?
KC: The whole album feels very XL/Fade to Mind/Warp inspired and that sound feels like a natural evolution for Harley – like either he went here or he went pop, right?
JP: Honestly I think it incorporates both. He’s in the unique and enviable position of being a production genius with a real feel for wonky and trippy sounds, and a real drive to continue learning and innovating, who also happens to be hugely popular.
KC: Yeah, he certainly doesn’t rest on his laurels. I can’t think of many other producers who came through in the same wave as him that push themselves as much.
JP: I agree with all you said, and I also hear a lot of Four Tet. The reason I bring this up is when I interviewed Harley for the Guardian a few years ago, he told me he had been planning on getting into Four Tet but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Clearly he has absorbed some influence from Kieran Hebden in that time.
4. ‘Numb & Getting Colder’ feat. Kučka
KC: You said you want a Flume rap album, well I want a Flume x Kučka EP. They are just such a brilliant match. I love Kučka’s voice, I could happily listen to her recite a shopping list, but she was born to sing on this album.
JP: I do like it. It edges into a certain prevalent type of R&B-ish electronic pop that is not really my thing. The jagged edges of Flume’s track are what I really dig on this one. It’s that darkness we were speaking of.
5. ‘Say It’ feat. Tove Lo
KC: For me, this was the less exciting of the two lead singles.
JP: The thing that gets me about this one is the explicitness of the lyrics. I love how she doesn’t even bother with double-entendres, it’s very single-entendre. I guess that’s par for the course in pop and R&B these days, and as you said, it’s her lyrics, not his; but, again, it’s quite a contrast with Flume’s image. It’s like, guys I’m not a kid anymore, here’s a song about sex. I’ve noticed the Touch Senstive porn ‘stache in recent photos, haha.
KC: It’s gone now! It was forcibly removed from his face in a live stream.
JP: Oh, of course it was. I should have realised that I wasn’t the clever one who first noticed the significance of the mo.
KC: It is possible that the moustache was a marketing ploy grown only to be publicly shaved the day before album release.
6. ‘Wall Fuck’
KC: This is the only track on the album I couldn’t get behind. Perhaps this is a ridiculous parallel to draw but it reminds me of when complextro was a thing and producers would try to out-do each other making tracks that took a lot of technical skill to produce but just weren’t very listenable. And that is what Wall Fuck is to me – impressive and admirable maybe on some level, but not super listenable. And I don’t really see the point of making a track like that for Flume because, dude – we already know you are an amazing producer! He does not need to prove that at this point.
JP: This is one of the ones that got me thinking about Four Tet – especially with that shimmering looping vocal. I actually think it’s pretty good. If anything it feels incomplete. So to you it’s like a pointless guitar solo or something? A virtuoso showing off but it’s boring?
KC: For me, yeah. But when we posted that list ranking every Flume song from worst to best and this was down the bottom, a lot of people raged in the comments and really stuck up for that track. So maybe I am just not woke enough for it.
JP: The thing is, your doubts about this one bring up the question of how this album hangs together as an album. I’m kind of split. On the one hand it’s so ambitious, and it ties together so many elements, from pop to pretty raw hip-hop to quite dark Warp-ish electronica. And he somehow ties it all together with a sound that is entirely his. But on the other hand, there’s no track on here that’s as good as any of the six best tracks on the debut. So it’s that second-album thing. Very few artists can avoid it, no matter how great they are. Wall Fuck is definitely the sound of a brilliant artist kind of struggling with the follow-up.
KC: I am trying to decide whether I agree with your assessment of no track here being as good as the best ones on the debut. I’m not sure I do. I don’t feel any disappointment about Skin, at all. I actually found it very cohesive.
JP: If anything I think this album is a “grower.”
KC: Oh, sorry Vic Mensa, I just remembered I have another favourite track. This one reminds me a lot of that MSSINGO song XE2 which was big around the time Harley would have been starting to write this album, so I daresay it was an influence.
JP: Pika is really pretty. I’m hearing Four Tet (again) and Aphex Twin in here too, but I’m old.
8. ‘Smoke & Retribution’ feat. Vince Staples & Kučka
KC: You said that the album is a grower and I agree – I also liked Smoke & Retribution a lot more in the context of the album than I did when it was released alone.
JP: This one’s not a personal fave; it sort of sounds like Flume in cruise control and riffing on the Hermitude remix a bit too much. But I think I see what you mean about the context of the album. It fits what I was saying about how he goes back and forth between more experimental sounds and bigger sounds. This is a big track; a good centrepiece for the album, and it does that fusion thing.
9 & 10. ‘3’ and ‘When Everything Was New’
JP: 3 is a really good instrumental, lovely yet twisted, and it’s one of those that ties this album together. Listening to it you’re like, aw yeah, this is what Flume does best. When Everything Was New is a gorgeous beatless instrumental; again, providing glue for the LP’s overarching ambition. He should do an ambient release. This guy is a good producer, we know this.
KC: Yep, all I had written in my notes for these two is that I really liked them both.
11. ‘You Know’ feat. Allan Kingdom & Raekwon
KC: I feel like this will be a divisive one. I liked it, but I also chuckled a bit to myself listening to it, because he’s rapping about setting this guy on fire and…I know they aren’t Harley’s words, but it is still a bit funny that there is this gangster track on the album made by a white guy from the Northern beaches. Did you dig it?
JP: Yes and no. How cool is it that he’s gone from having T.Shirt on his first album to the mighty Raekwon the Chef on his second one? It shows you how far he’s come. The track itself is just OK though – it sorta seems like Flume pulled back on the controls a bit, maybe out of respect. Also: what would a guy from the Northern Beaches rap about? Surfing and expensive burgers?
12. ‘Take a Chance’ feat. Little Dragon
KC: Something I find admirable about this album is how cohesive all of these collaborations feel. A thing a lot of producers fall victim to when they hit the level where everyone wants to work with them is cramming all these big names onto their album because they can, or because the label thinks it’s a good idea. I mean, look at the Disclosure. But everyone on Skin feels like they add something without distracting from the vision of the album as a whole. Maybe you disagree?
JP: I definitely agree. And I think the cohesiveness says something about Flume’s sound. It’s such a specific thing that he’s built and it’s like he’s inviting these other artists in to inhabit it for a while. Take a Chance is terrific. Everything is working here. I like the white-soulfulness of it, it has a bit of Everything But the Girl, let’s say.
13. ‘Innocence’ feat. AlunaGeorge
JP: Innocence is a little reminiscent of Burial with its uptempo broken beats and the spooky effects that overshadow AlunaGeorge’s vocal. After I heard Flume’s Essential Mix, which had a surprising amount of house and related uptempo sounds on it, I thought that he might be going in that direction for this album. I’m a little bummed that there isn’t more of it.
KC: I do think it says something about his stature that he’s collaborated with AlunaGeorge, who are pretty big pop-ish stars, on a track that will never be a single. To me that says that he cares more about making good music than making big hits. That having said, this is not my favourite track on the album.
14 & 15. ‘Like Water’ feat. MNDR and ‘Free’
KC: I like these two, Like Water especially. This is the point in an album – track 14 and 15, an hour deep – where you might start getting bored, but I never felt that Skin was too long. Would you have cut anything from it?
JP: I would have cut You Know.
16. ‘Tiny Cities’ feat. Beck
JP: Tiny Cities is really interesting. To end an album with a collaboration with Beck, when the core audiences of both artists don’t really overlap. (Have Beck’s older fans even heard of Flume?) It doesn’t seem like a cynical marketing ploy; sounds like they were honestly just having fun working together. And it’s actually a really haunting and lovely way to end it.
KC: It was definitely the collaboration that, on paper, gelled the least to me. But I think they made it work. So what’s your verdict on the album as a whole?
JP: It largely fulfils its huge ambitions and his fans’ huge expectations, but it’s a bit too sprawling and overcooked at times. Nothing could compare to his debut LP, but this will only add to Flume’s legacy.
KC: I’m giving it 8.5/10. This is a great album and I can’t imagine anyone would be disappointed in how it turned out.
JP: I also want to give a shout out to the artwork. It’s really cool how it combines the floral and the pastoral with darker and more cyber elements. It really suits the distorted beauty of Flume’s productions, as well as the more mature and sometimes frankly sexual themes. Future Classic is always on point with design, and this is no exception.