Lights – Skin & Earth [Album Review]

Let me start this off by saying I am not your stereotypical Lights fan.  I’m a dude, I’m mostly into metal and hip-hop, and I’m older than her average fan base.  That being said, I’ve been into Lights since back in the days of ‘The Listening‘ album.  I first discovered her from Myspace.  I couldn’t tell you how I managed to stumble across her back then (hell I don’t even remember how Myspace works anymore), but somehow I did.

The first thing that made me really take notice and appreciate her were her acoustic performances.  After initially finding out about her on Myspace, I quickly made my way over to YouTube where I found a bunch of videos of her playing acoustic versions of her own songs as well as covers.  Most of her recorded music at that time was electro synth-pop that was made using mostly keyboards and synthesizers.  The cool thing about her YouTube videos was that she would take those same songs and record herself on camera, in what looked like her own living room, playing versions of her electronic music on just an acoustic guitar with her singing along.  It was a beautiful thing.  The stripped-down versions of her songs added a whole new dimension to her music and transformed her from just a simple pop act to a real artist/musician.  Or at least that was the impression I got by seeing this broader spectrum of her talent showcased this way.

In the videos, she sang and played beautifully, and never edited out mistakes or imperfections.  It was as raw and pure as you could ask for.  It was like having front row seats at the local coffee shop during open mic night.  Of course, this was back in the day when she was virtually unknown in the states aside from a niche group of indie followers.  As time went on, the homemade YouTube videos started to disappear as she grew bigger and more notarized as an artist.  The homemade videos began to be replaced by bigger budget music videos, some of which I enjoyed but for the most part didn’t add much to her music for me.

Regardless, I always applauded her success because I truly believed she deserved it.  To me, she was the real deal –  a singer/songwriter who made music for all the right reasons.  Her songs were introspective and reflective.  Her lyrics were not always deep but they were creative and often very poetic.  They seemed to come from the heart.  Rarely did her music in the early days come off as simply radio material, aside from the obligatory track or two on each album.  For the most part, Lights, in my humble opinion was a genuine artist and not just a gimmick.

As years went on, I was a fan of every album and I even turned my fiancé into a huge Lights fan.  We saw her play live twice in San Francisco.  Once for the electronic show and once for the acoustic show.  To this day, I consider her acoustic show one of the greatest live performances I’ve even seen.

I always liked how she’d come out with an album of electronic music, then a year or so later come out with the acoustic version of that album.  Each time it was a success.  The way she would reinterpret her electronic music to acoustic and be able to perform it just as good if not better sometimes than the originals was always an exciting experience.  She did this for ‘Siberia‘ and ‘Little Machines.’  Both albums along with their acoustic counterparts were awesome.

Along the way, she always continued to mature as an artist.  Gradually, the childlike quality of her voice and music faded more and more and transformed into something deeper, sometimes darker, and more complex.  The pinnacle of this evolution was heard on ‘Little Machines’ and its acoustic EP counterpart ‘Midnight Machines.’  In my opinion, the two bonus songs on ‘Little Machines’ were some of the best work she’d done her entire career as well as the song “Follow You Down” from ‘Midnight Machines.’  With the exception of “Up We Go,” which I never cared for, ‘Little Machines’ was all in all the best album Lights had ever created front to back.  I hoped it was an indication of the direction she was going in the future.


Fast forward to ‘Skin & Earth.’  Leading up to this album I had high hopes.  I had heard that she was going to be releasing the album along with a comic book to accompany it.  To me, this sounded like a cool idea.  In my mind I pictured a massive, immersive audio/visual experience where the music would create this atmosphere of a post-apocalyptic world which would complement the story and the images on the pages as you’re reading.  It would be something like a modern-day Pink Floyd – ‘Dark Side of the Moon‘ but even better because it has a comic book to go along with it.  I was so looking forward to its release.

Now for the harsh reality.  I have listened to ‘Skin & Earth’ in its entirety and I am extremely disappointed.  I had already heard “Giants,” “Skydiving,” “Savage,” and “New Fears” because they were released early along with music videos.  My impression was already not good after hearing these songs.  To me, “Giants” sounded like typical Lights for the most part but I didn’t much care for the chorus.  I assumed, ok well this is just the radio song like “Up We Go” and just looked forward to better music to follow.

Next up was “Skydiving.”  The intro of which is deceiving because it does start off like something very atmospheric but then quickly turns into a mid-tempo mainstream pop song.  The finger-snap beat sounds like it could be from any Selena Gomez song and even the vocal melodies sound like Gomez.  Why are the vocals mixed so loud now?  Where are the cool synth melodies and interesting riffs?  It’s just a catchy, simplistic, radio-friendly beat with way over-produced vocals and uninspired lyrics.  It’s not a bad mainstream pop song if that’s what you’re into, but it just doesn’t sound like what Lights does best.  I’m all for artists wanting to experiment and change their sound.  I encourage evolution.  But to me, this sounds like the opposite.  It’s as if she went into the record label and said, “Hey I have a comic book I’ve been spending all my time on that I need to sell and now I’ve run out of time to come up with an album, can you help me out?”  The record label said, “Sure! Here’s our best producers.  They’ll make you a star in no time.”

Next up is “Until the Light.”  Sounds like another uninspired mainstream pop song, very reminiscent of Justin Bieber this time.  Maybe this was an homage to a fellow Canadian.  Who knows?  Not the worst on the album, but nothing amazing about it either.  Stock lyrics, stock beat, stock vocals and melody.

After that comes “Savage.”  So instead of Selena Gomez this time we get something that sounds like it could have come straight off of a Maroon 5 album.  Just throw Adam Levine’s whiney little tenor voice and falsettos and you’re all set.  Only this time, unfortunately it’s Lights doing her best Levine impression.  Vocals aside, the main basic guitar “riff,” if you can even call it that, is just that – basic.  There’s nothing more to it than that.  If someone picked up a guitar for the first time an hour ago, they could play that riff fluently.  Uninventive, bland, and boring.  If this was Lights’ attempt at “rocking,” it was a huge fail.  And it’s not like she can’t play the guitar well.  She’s actually an accomplished guitarist, so why she chose to dumb her playing down for this one just further indicates how she’s catering to the masses of casual music fans now.

The fourth track is “New Fears.”  I guess The Weeknd was busy when they wrote this song so Lights ended up with it.  Only problem is, vocally I think he would have done better to be honest.  Another mainstream, radio-friendly pop song that sounds like everything else being played today.  The lyrics are so bland on this one it’s like they were just an afterthought.  Also, the song structure so far on the album is just completely formulaic.  Nothing exciting about this one.

And Selena Gomez is back!  She didn’t go far away.  The finger-snap beat returns on “Morphine” and even the vocal delivery this time sounds just like Gomez.  It’s starting to seem at this point like Lights is just along for the ride while the big-time producers run the show.  Looking at the writing credits for this album, it looks like a lot of hands were involved in this project.  Again, not a terrible song.  It’s actually one of the stronger tracks of the album, but the sound is unoriginal and trendy.

We Were Here” is next up.  What can I say?  The melody and beat are kind of cool I guess but it’s extremely repetitive and the lyrics are absolutely cringe-worthy.  There’s that damn finger-snap again! Unmemorable overall.

Next up is “Kicks” by Taylor Swift—er I mean Lights.  I don’t have much to say about this song other than just pure disappointment.

Moonshine” is just filler.  Bland, formulaic, repetitive, and uninspired.

Interlude” – I actually like this one a lot.  It’s just a cool song/ear candy.  Sounds similar to “Intro” and has a nice atmospheric vibe to it.  Reminds me a little of Imogen Heap in a good way.  The worst thing about this one is that it’s way too short.

Although a bit repetitive, “Magnetic Field” is one of the better songs on the album.  It actually sounds like something one would expect from Lights even though she noticeably has difficulty hitting the lower notes.  The lyrics this time are somewhat better but still nothing close to a “Same Sea” or “Muscle Memory” lyrics-wise.  It’s a solid B-

The next song is “Fight Club.”  More filler.

And finally, “Almost Had Me.”  Probably some of the better lyrics of the album.  It definitely sounds the most like her older stuff compared to the majority of the record. It’s actually a really good song with nice tone and tempo changes.  If “Magnetic Field” was a B- then this one is a B+.

Overall, ‘Skin & Earth’ is a standard mainstream pop album.  I have no doubts that this will gain Lights more radio play, especially in the US.  It sounds like it would fit right in with all the other stuff in heavy rotation on the radio these days and I’m sure she’ll sell more records, comic books, and concert tickets because of it.  However, as a longtime fan of her music since back in YouTube artist days, I have to be disappointed in the direction she’s taken.  I hate to use the cliché term of “sellout” but unfortunately it seems to fit here.

At the end of the day, Lights deserves to profit from her art and be able to live a comfortable life, so if this is what it takes then more power to her.  Hopefully the next album will be a revisiting of her roots.  And if not, she’ll always have a large catalogue of classics I can go back to whenever I want.

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