Skylar Grey’s sophomore effort comes 3 years after 2013’s Don’t Look Down, and while it certainly raises the bar in terms of creativity, ultimately suffers from the same issues of inconsistency which persisted on her debut. It is a confounding and eclectic mix of sounds in the same way, and while some of these sounds utilize her ethereal voice in a perfect way, other times it falls flat. All in all however, this is certainly a step up. It feels less geared at the pop audience, as the last project was filled with unnecessary features and bland songwriting.
Grey seems to have embraced her status as a more prominent force in the indie scene, as many of these songs are slower and aimed more towards a singer/songwriter vibe. The main element which ties together these diverse songs seems to be an emphasis on layered vocals and harmony, and interesting and inspired choice for Grey’s singing style which works very well for the most part.
It isn’t that Grey excels in one style over the others: hard-hitting and dramatic track “Kill For You” and stripped-down and vulnerable ballad “Moving Mountains” are equally brilliant, and having confusingly lacklustre cousins with similar sounds — perhaps “Straight Shooter’ and “In My Garden”, respectively. It seems like the process of cutting down the album might be difficult. Unlike Don’t Look Down, however, this album truly does have many more incredible moments than it does misfires.
Production is a major strength on this album, and working with a more focused and cohesive group of individuals for the entire duration of the creative process helped in a major way. All producers and writers on this project have been heavily involved with Eminem in some way in the past, which is moderately surprising considering Grey’s genre — even if she has served as a perfect complement to many of the rapper’s songs over the years.
Even with all these distinguished producers, the album’s production MVP might just be Slim Shady himself. He has writing and production credits on the back to back standout songs “Kill For You” and “Come Up For Air”, and while both songs reside comfortably in Grey’s regime of slower-tempo tracks, each is heavily anchored by a massive live drumbeat, intersecting with Grey’s backing vocals and the minimalist production perfectly. While Eminem’s verse on “Kill For You” is still great, although less spectacular than we know he is capable of, “Come Up For Air” is a true masterpiece. Grey’s voice soars, and backed by a choir comprised by her own voice, the song is one of the most strikingly beautiful of the year.
The theme of minimalism is quite prominent throughout Natural Causes, and it works because Grey’s voice is enough to carry a track on its own. The acoustic and beautifully written ballad “Moving Mountains” is a perfect example. Grey’s voice is full of emotion as she implores us to put aside the ambitious part of ourselves that always wants to change the world and enjoy the moment we are living in. Compared to some of the sleepier ballads like “Closer”, the message of this one shines through. The diversity is another strong suit, often surprising the listener. Middling track “Picture Perfect” is elevated when halfway through the track, the beat picks up and Grey starts rapping. Don’t look now, but she might have done the impossible and turned in a better verse than Eminem on this project.
The high points make the occasional blunders all the more confusing. A few of the slower songs simply suffer from being a less interesting counterpart to a similar song on the album. A song like “Straight Shooter” is simply unnecessary and dates back to the pandering on the last album, being really the only time her pop past comes back to haunt her. “In My Garden” is fraught with overproduction, distorted synths overpowering the track and drowning out the vocals for a quite uncharacteristically unpleasant listening experience.
Skylar Grey’s overall artistic vision on this project makes for a much more fully fleshed-out work than her debut, and despite the brief inconsistencies, provides us with some stunning slower tracks for the colder months. Hopefully her friend and mentor Eminem’s album should be following suit in the near future and we will continue to hear more of this indie-influenced side of Grey in her contributions to the project.
Favourite Tracks: Come Up For Air, Moving Mountains, Kill For You, Picture Perfect, Off Road
Least Favourite Track: In My Garden