Skylar Grey’s ‘Don’t Look Down’: Album Review

Christina Lee | July 9, 2013 5:45 am
Skylar Grey knows how it feels to start over. Before she wrote Eminem‘s “Love the Way You Lie,” she performed under her birth name Holly Brook, as a piano-based songwriter comparable to Sarah MacLachlan. While she became known for singing in Fort Minor‘s “Where’d You Go,” Holly Brook spent most of her first, self-titled EP singing quietly of slowly accepting seclusion. In introduction “Curious,” she begins to explain why: “Someone tell me what to do, I feel like I must be a fool / for ending up right back at the start.” She was singing of a souring relationship, though ultimately she seemed to blame herself.

When Skylar Grey emerged, she said that she “killed” Holly Brook. Then, with cartoonish debut single “C’mon Let Me Ride,” her voice squeaks as she squeals compliments of some dude’s, er, frame: “It looks so shiny and new.” (Eminem raps a response in his best perverted Pee-wee Herman impression.) In follow-up single “Final Warning,” Grey whispers of hanging her ex as if she’s singing a lullaby, yet somehow sounds softer and prettier than before,.

This brings us to Don’t Look Down, Grey’s second stab at a debut album (out today, ), where the singer-songwriter aims at positioning herself as a changed woman.

Skylar sounds curiously confident and upbeat on the LP, although her biggest priority seems to be guarding herself from an ex who’s resurfaced. Producer Alex da Kid cues sound effects like the Wicked Witch Of The West with flying monkeys: see the tinny, haunted-house effects in introduction “Back From The Dead” and the screaming match and cannon blast in “Final Warning.” Grey bares her teeth during these songs — musical tales that could cement comparisons to Eminem’s past, psychotic rap-rants  — only to sing sweeter sentiments later on.

This sort of mood swing feels like suspicious behavior at first, even (or especially) during the whimsical “Wear Me Out” and “Religion,” where Grey sounds not unlike Michelle Branch. From this point, it’s hard to shake off the sense that another abrupt change in tone might occur at any given moment on Don’t Look Down. By album’s end, though, Grey does perhaps the most unexpected thing: flaunt her range as a bona fide songwriter.

Grey’s music isn’t “Grown Woman” or “I’m Out”-style invincibility; it’s bombastic pop best listened to when dealing with emotions grows messy, from someone seemingly rough around the edges, but who knows exactly what she’s doing. Swelling electro-pop ballad “Glow in the Dark” washes all memories of “Final Warning” clean, while “Shit, Man!” (featuring an inspired, tension-building verse by Angel Haze) adds a skip to the minor-key emotion Grey wrote into Diddy‘s “Coming Home.”

Thought the record’s the cover art shows Grey crouching over a washer-dryer set with an ax laying on top, she seems to have tossed her weapon aside by the time we reach album closer/touching piano ballad “White Suburban.” As she sings of the first love she ever lost, Grey begins the song’s chorus by eerily recalling, of all people, Sarah MacLachlan when she sings, “But I still remember you.”

After a few “false” starts before hitting her stride as Songwriter Skylar Grey, she isn’t out to show she’s erased her past. Rather, she’s demonstrating how she’s embraced it.

Idolator Score: 4/5

Christina Lee