More than any other high-profile release since the new dawn of crossover EDM, Flume’s Skin—a 16-track odyssey of drops, booms, and well-crafted bliss—reflects the state and times of the genre. Half of the material is purely commercial, with Flume looking to score his own “Wake Me Up,” “Lean On,” or “Latch,” while the other half buzzes with fascinating, insular experiments. Considering its bob and weave between dance pop and disorienting noise, Skin ultimately doesn’t carve out a discernable identity for the 24 year-old DJ, but it offers compelling looks into what this identity could be.
As far as Flume’s bids for a hit, the single “Never Be Like You” is impressive, even if it is just an exercise in formula. The signature Flume sound, which pairs frenetic, start-stop percussion with ascending staccato synths, creates the illusion that singer Kai is climbing up a gorgeous, reverberating helix, even when her performance is thin and the lyrics are banal: “I’m only human can’t you see/I made a mistake/Please just look me in the face/Tell me everything’s okay.” Flume deserves credit for the varied collaborators assembled here (Beck, Raekwon, MNDR, Little Dragon, and Tove Lo), but he frequently fails to get the most from them. Sometimes the strength of his backing tracks is undone by his guests’ contributions, like Vic Mensa’s limp and cringe-inducing rap on “Lose It” (“I feel like Nagasaki dawg/I’m ’bout to drop the bomb”) or the overly delicate vocals of Australian singer Kucka, who’s overwhelmed by bombastic productions on both “Numb and Getting Colder” and “Smoke & Retribution.”
When the big names disappear, noise comes to the forefront of the album. “Wall Fuck” is perhaps best described as dense, rhythmic smoke, the chilling sound of something that’s harder to identify the bigger it grows. “Pika” and “Free” use glitchy arpeggios to contrast the warmth of Flume’s underlying synth beds, and the subtle fluttering on “When Everything Was New,” which samples the voices of children at a playground, underscores the fragility of youth. Flume’s exploration of obscure sounds and his trippy sequencing on these instrumentals suggests far more curiosity and ambition than the quasi-automation of Skin’s more mainstream radio fodder.
There are rare moments when Flume’s head-spinning and thoughtful production is in perfect harmony with his pop hooks. The breakdown halfway through “Take a Chance” reinterprets the song’s stunning chorus, a dialogue between guest Little Dragon and Flume’s own birdcall synths, as muddled banging, then again as a soft-edged outro; Flume essentially remixes the track twice in the course of five minutes. “Say It” benefits from both an irresistible slink of Flume’s design and Tove Lo’s flirtatious delivery: She coyly sings, “Let me fuck you right back,” while Flume’s percussion echoes like ripped pieces of paper. Flume is an audible presence on these tracks, challenging as opposed to simply supporting his guests.
More often, Skin comes at listeners in alternately slick and scuzzy waves, and a sense of cohesion is lost in the fray. If the burden on electronic producers is to establish personality beyond a dense network of light displays and computer processing, this album gets Flume halfway there: It shows him as unquestionably human (overeager, alternately flashy and timid, sometimes more in awe than in control), but still a bit faceless.