I decided at the last minute not to write this as a conventional album review, but then, Sky Ferreira‘s album hasn’t been conventional — certainly not as far as timeline is concerned, given that it took five years for her debut Night Time, My Time (out today, ) to finally materialize, and not as far as the final product goes, either, since it’s a strange record that doesn’t hit any of the expected marks. But the first thing worth noting is that it was not easy to get my hands on the Sky Ferreira album. Often, labels send out advances of records well before their release dates, so critics and journalists and paid pop reactionaries (like me) have a little time with an album before it drops, but I couldn’t get an advance of Night Time, My Time from the label until yesterday, which left me with just a few hours to write this review. (Typically, I have at least a few days to play and replay an album, and let it marinate a little bit before I form a judgment.)
If it seems like I’m dwelling on that point, it’s not just because it was frustrating (staying late to listen to the Sky Ferreira album isn’t a bad problem to have, frankly), but because it’s likely a testament to the level of investment associated with Ferreira’s record — Sky Ferreira’s whole journey as an artist in miniature. She signed a million-dollar record deal when she was a teenager with braces and turned in countless versions of her album, none of which were deemed acceptable for release; she told Pitchfork in a recent interview that 400 songs were left on the cutting room floor. “That was the entire fight: I wasn’t going to be what they wanted me to be because I couldn’t do what they wanted me to do,” she said.
By this past summer, the label, apparently, had had it. “They were sort of out of money and out of ideas,” her manager told New York Magazine. “[They] basically said: This record has to come out. You have a limited amount of time, and you’re welcome to use your own money to finish it.” So she wrote the whole thing, save two songs (“You’re Not The One” and “24 Hours”), in the month of August, working with Justin Raisen and Ariel Rechtshaid to turn out an album very, very quickly. Aside from JoJo suing her label or Ciara publicly begging Jive to release her from her contract, it’s hard to recall an artist whose contempt for her label was more readily apparent. (If you think she’s being a brat, consider that Night Time, My Time isn’t receiving a physical release. You can still pre-order it on Amazon, but an ominous bit of texts reads, “A release date has not yet been set for this title.”)
— Sky Ferreira (@skyferreira) October 18, 2013
This one has since been deleted:
Deep, deep sigh.
Her recollections of the last half-decade — her label advance being pissed away on transcontinental commutes so she could promote singles she never wanted to release, rooms full of stony-faced A&Rs telling her that nothing she’s doing was good enough — testify to some of the problems endemic to the music industry and the label system as a whole, comprised of well-intentioned people making casualties out of a lot of talented, starry-eyed young artists. She’s not the first, and she won’t be the last.
The frequency with which that happens wasn’t something that I knew much about when I discovered Ferreira back in 2008, when she had a few demos on her MySpace page and a lot of blog hype among pop nerds, and it was Ferreira that was the subject of the first thing I ever wrote about music, which ended up launching my career; that’s probably why Sky Ferreira’s trajectory feels personal to me, whether that’s appropriate or not. I was a college student trying to write serious literary nonfiction in 2010 when I wrote a long, sprawling story about the early promise Ferreira had shown as an artist for a writing class; after a semester of reading my overwrought pieces of memoir, my professor told me, “You are much better at writing about music than you are about writing about your own life” (generously, I think; the implication was primarily that I was not very good at writing about the latter). I ended up running that piece on my now-colleague Brad Stern’s blog, and it feels a little, well, embarrassing to read now, this funny old relic of an old Internet era and a person that I used to be. I was so convinced of Ferreira’s promise!
Things didn’t go the way that I had anticipated — she’s not the next great American pop star, by any stretch of the imagination — but she’s something much more interesting than that, much more cynical and much more withering in her perspective. After a few years of writing about music and watching artists like Ferreira get bruised by the people who were supposed to make them great, I am, too, for better or for worse. But it would be disingenuous to pretend like my take on Ferreira’s album isn’t colored by the role that she (unwittingly) played in starting my career as a pop music person, just as it would be disingenuous to pretend like anyone’s take on her album isn’t also colored by the colossal mess of the last few years of her career.
Given the sheer volume of songs recorded and the extraordinary timeline associated with this album, Night Time, My Time could easily have felt labored, but it doesn’t. There’s a rawness and vitality in Ferreira’s songs that’s refreshing, even as she sounds so very weary. It’s unclear whether the fuzzy production is truly deliberate or the product of lassitude, since many of these songs sound like demos (if I were in her shoes, I would have grabbed the demos and run), but it doesn’t matter. The conspicuous absence of last year’s luminous, zeitgeist-defining single “Everything Is Embarrassing” aside, the tracklist feels well-curated; every song is necessary. It’s lo-fi, like a Blondie cover band recorded on cassette tape and played back through shitty speakers. “Boys” booms and crashes; “Ain’t Your Right” is punkier and spunkier. “24 Hours” has a nice, sparkly chorus. The surly, aggressive “Nobody Asked Me” is incredibly sad, even as its bratty na-na-na hook lodges itself in your brain. There are big pop hooks, but they’re obfuscated by the production, like some maybe-intentional literalization of Ferreira’s persona: The it girl and fashion muse, a born pop star, staunchly refusing to just glitter.
“I Blame Myself” is a standout, the most unambiguously pop thing here; the synths are light and sparkly, a keen contrast to the self-loathing subject matter: “I blame myself for my reputation,” she sings on the devastatingly perky chorus. There’s the hissing, ambient “Omanko” and the pleasant stomp of “Heavy Metal Heart.” “Kristine” is weird and filtered and diffuse and “I Will” is sinister, like an ’80s horror movie soundtrack. The airy, twinkling “Love In Stereo” actually sounds like a pop song, and the title track is the least pop thing here.
Those are the songs. They’re mostly sad and tortured and feel like someone who has had a rough go of it over the last few years, as Ferreira has. They’re not shimmering pop like the stuff she made early in her career. They’re bleary rock songs with excellent choruses, and they deserve to be heard. The infuriating thing isn’t the album, but the conversation. Back when she launched, she was an exciting new pop star tipped for stardom. Now, the dialogue revolves around her recent arrest, her decision to expose a breast on her album cover, her work as a model — pretty much anything but the product that she’s been trying to create for the last five years.
Ferreira has been unfairly maligned, but pop stardom doesn’t exist in a vacuum, which is probably the problem. She seems disinterested in playing the usual promotional games, in whether or not she’s perceived as likable. She’s talked often in interviews about her love of Britney Spears, and listening to this record, I’m reminded of that heartbreaking moment in Spears’ 2008 MTV documentary For The Record, where she describes her conception of heaven: “To have my kids on an island — and a man — and no one could get to us,” Spears says.
After the last half-decade, I’d wager that Ferreira feels more or less the same way. Night Time, My Time is her voice, uncontaminated, and it’s a document of frustration, disaffection and disillusionment. It’s probably exactly the album she was supposed to make. Last year, everything was embarrassing; this year, everything is just exhausting. Even on an album bathed in distortion, you can hear her saying so, loud and clear.
Idolator Score: 4/5
— Sam Lansky