The music business is full of potential Sky Ferreiras. Imagine being one of the first two girls who got fired from Destiny’s Child, or being the one guy in this Mickey Mouse Club video who didn’t go on to be in ‘N Sync or Drive. Miley Cyrus’s recent antics have ignited our most recent storm of public concern about the fate of child stars, of the kids who were blessed with money and adulation before they could figure out what to do with either. And admittedly there are ten sad stories for one Timberlake. But what about the kids in the fame-grinder who didn’t make it even that far? The charismatic 12-year-olds who were yanked out of school, who had promises of fame and adulation dangled in front of them, and who were then forced to spend their teenage years in airplanes and studios and conference rooms with studio execs who didn’t hear a single? If anything, wouldn’t that be more damaging to a still-in-formation psyche? The late teens and early 20s are riotously dramatic years for just about everyone anyway, but imagine going through the usual drug experimentation and predatory significant-other experiences while being haunted by the idea that you’re a has-been, or a never-was, and that you never got to experience all the usual dumb kid stuff that turns out to be so important in retrospect? Sky Ferreira went through all of that, is still going through all of that, and what sets her apart is that she’s now made a wonderfully glittery pop album — an album that should finally turn her into an actual star if her record label doesn’t disastrously fuck up — about all of it.
Ferreira is just 21 now, but she’s spent about five years in the major-label system, signed because of some MySpace demos she sent to the Swedish production duo Bloodshy & Avant. But all the work she put in with producers and song-doctors only resulted in non-starter would-be hits like this one. She ended up on her label’s shelf, recording stuff on her own. And then came “Everything Is Embarrassing,” the washed-out narco-pop song she recorded with Dev Hynes, a certified internet-hit and her introduction to the indiesphere, the place where she now lives. But if “Everything Is Embarrassing” worked as a declaration of independence and of selfhood, it wasn’t a stylistic indicator of where she’d go when she finally got a chance to drop a debut album. Hynes is nowhere to be found on Night Time, My Time, and his underwater soul-pop is gone, too. Instead, the album’s sound is big, hard, glittery. The drums are huge, the synths slick with neon sheen, the all-out sense of propulsion foremost even when her songs are at their haziest. She’s made a Kim Wilde album, a Bananarama album, a Vitamin C album — and the best of its kind in recent memory.
This stuff works in part because Ferreira sounds so nakedly emotional, so utterly on-the-edge, throughout. On opener “Boys,” she’s thanking a male friend, possibly DIIV’s Zachary Cole Smith, for restoring her entire faith in his gender after so many disappointments. “Nobody Asked Me” absolutely embodies the weird ecstatic rush that comes with all-encompassing self-pity; when she sings “nobody asked me if I was OK,” she whoops it, at once incensed and energized by her abandonment. “I Blame Myself” is the killingest killer on an album full of them: A mid-’80s Madonna anthem about the cold realization that your life is absolutely fucked. Plenty of pop stars have portrayed feelings like these ones, but few of them sound like they’re actually in it the way Ferreira does here. On those songs, she’s got some of the blaring instability of Cat Power, a recent Ferreira mentor figure. And even though she’s transmitting that stuff in the context of sharp and ingratiating pop music, she hasn’t diluted it at all. There’s just too much wounded wildness in her voice for her to simply be playing a character.
But this stuff also works, in its way, because of all Ferreira’s time in the major-label system. Simply put, Ferreira knows how pop songs work. Like Frank Ocean, a major-label song-doctor before he dropped Nostalgia.Ultra and grabbed our collective imagination, Ferreira knows where the bridge goes, when to kick the theatrical drama up a notch or two, why the song’s biggest note belongs at its climax. For all the emotional intensity of her music, she’s also a technician, and a clinically precise one at that. She has hooks, and she knows her strengths. Ferreira reportedly went through hundreds of songs that she’d written to get the 12 that made the album, and every last one of them is a monster, a potential hit. Even the dreamy fugue “Omanko,” which Ferreira calls a Suicide homage and which sounds like a strung-out Suzanne Vega attempting to remake Spacemen 3’s Playing With Fire immediately after hearing it for the first time, is a compulsively listenable earworm, and it could be an absolute festival anthem come next summer. Ferreira definitely didn’t enjoy all her time on the major-label shelf, but she damn sure picked up a few tricks when she was there.
And can we talk for a moment about Ariel Reichstadt? Reichstadt is a former member of the skittery Afropop-influenced L.A. indie band Foreign Born (and, before that, the teenage frontman of the Interscope ska-punk band the Hippos), and he’s emerged as maybe the year’s most dependably great producer. It’s a bit facile to call Reichstadt a master of combining pop and indie sensibilities, partly because it’s hard to say what those two words even mean anymore and partly because the things he does are way subtler than that. What Reichstadt does is he helps artists find a sharp, clear, eminently pleasant sound that still makes plenty of room for their own quirks and peculiarities to shine though, a place for hooks and personality to exist without one ever detracting from the other. Reichstadt has been putting in serious work in recent years, producing or co-producing three great Cass McCombs albums, Glasser’s Ring, Solange’s True, Usher’s “Climax.” And his 2013 has been fucking nuts: Charli XCX’s True Romance, Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires In The City, HAIM’s Days Are Gone, and now Night Time, My Time. We don’t know which of the musical decisions on Night Time, My Time belong to Reichstadt and which belong to Ferreira or to co-producer Justin Raisen. But you can’t argue with that batting average. And now it’s fun to imagine how, say, Reflektor might sound if Reichstadt had his fingerprints on it. At this point, I’m more than ready to forgive Reichstadt his involvement in “Hey There Delilah.” Hell, I’m almost ready to start liking “Hey There Delilah.”
Honestly, though, every involved in Night Time, My Time deserves heaps of credit. Ferreira could’ve been a punchline, even after “Everything Is Embarrassing.” But now, she’s the person who made one of 2013’s best albums. Respect is due.
Night Time, My Time is out now on Capitol.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Arcade Fire’s massive and sweeping Reflektor.
• No Blues, the latest fiery twee missive from Los Campesinos!
• Worriers’ fuzzily awesome pop-punk debut Cruel Optimist.
• Yvette’s tough, noisy, feedbacky Process.
• Upset’s charmingly personable punk debut She’s Gone.
• Son Lux’s scattered-but-spacious Lanterns.
• White Denim’s confidently garage-rocking Corsicana Lemonade.
• Moonface’s grand solo-piano affair Julia With Blue Jeans On.
• Juana Molina’s entirely self-produced comeback Wed 21.
• Skeletonwitch’s adrenal riffbomb Serpents Unleashed.
• Laurel Halo’s haunted-house experiment Chance Of Rain.
• Bad Religion’s inexplicable yuletide collection Christmas Songs.
• Get There, Juliana Hatfield and Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws’s debut as Minor Alps.
• Robert Pollard project Circus Devils’ When Machines Attack and My Mind Has Seen The White Trick.
• Russian Circles’ grandly post-metal Memorial.
• Bars Of Gold’s sharp, glowing Wheels.
• Audacity’s fiery debut Butter Knife.
• Botany’s zoned-out soundscape collection Lava Diviner (Truestory).
• Body Parts’ warm, jittery debut Fire Dream.
• Vaura’s dessicated art-metal wallow The Missing.
• Inquisition’s riffy black metal opus Obsure Verses For The Multiverse.
• Hail Of Bullets’ focused death metal attack III The Rommel Chronicles.
• Widowspeak’s The Swamps EP.
• Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Blue Record EP.
• Shy Girls’ Timeshare EP.
• Joey Bada$$’s Summer Knights EP.
• Mount Kimbie’s CSLFY Remixes EP.
• Jagwar Ma’s Come Save Me Remixes EP.