Skylar Grey’s name has been all over the place as a guest vocalist on songs by other artists and as a songwriter for others, most notably the Eminem/Rihanna epic “Love the Way You Lie,” which she co-penned with Alex Da Kid.
Now Grey steps out from her supporting role to take the spotlight on her new “Don’t Look Down,” which was executive produced by Eminem and Alex Da Kid.
More than anything, the Wisconsin native is bold. She made that much clear with the previously released single “C’Mon Let Me Ride,” a grainy carnival of a song in which she coos endless innuendo as Eminem himself channels Pee-wee Her-man singing Queen’s “Bicycle Race.”
Still, that novelty song doesn’t represent Grey – no single track on “Don’t Look Down” does. The emotional and sonic pendulum swings dramatically from track to track as she sounds like everything from an angry anti-establishment artist to a boisterous hit-maker. It’s both engaging and disconcerting, contrived and compelling.
As with “Love the Way You Lie,” there’s violence in the histrionics. Grey slinks along the bassline of “Final Warning” to romanticize domestic abuse, with her line, “Someone’s going to get hurt … and it’s not going to be me” eventually under-scored by gunfire. Just before that, on the piano-dominated opener “Back From the Dead,” she contemplates what to do with the return of an ex-lover: “Should I throw my arms around you or kill you for real?” And as she withstands the theatri-cal arrangement of “Wear Me Out,” which references playing with fire and Daddy’s gun, Grey wryly shrugs it off with, “Sometimes I feel like old blue jeans, ’cause you wear me out.”
Although the tone never finds a consistent groove, Grey’s vocal comfort zone is something of a mix of Dido cool and Fiona Apple simmer. Meanwhile, she one-ups Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” with a frenetic, fear-filled song about coping with unplanned motherhood. She steals thunder from Garbage’s “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” with her marching-beat “Clear Blue Sky.” And she plays a vindictive bad sport on the chunky-beat “Pulse” that makes Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” seem civil.
Then there are lesser tracks that sound like desperate attempts to conform to pop convention, plus she limps off with the tedious, self-pitying finale of “Tower (Don’t Look Down)” and “White Suburban.”
Ultimately, “Don’t Look Down” may not clearly define who Grey is, but it’s fitfully gutsy.
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of five)
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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