Most people probably know Mikky Ekko (if they know him at all) from Rihanna’s hit single, “Stay,” off her 2012 album Unapologetic. Raw and emotionally bereft, the song is driven by a lone piano while the artists’ voices are left to convey all that pain and yearning. Considering Ekko (born John Stephen Sudduth) co-wrote the lyrics (with Justin Parker), most people might expect more of the same on his début album. They’ll be surprised to find that’s not the case.
Whether it’s the booming rock sound and angry whisper of “Riot” or the swagger and warble of the opening track, “Watch Me Rise,” Time has a surprising amount of variety. Lkkewise, Ekko’s voice has surprising range. Sometimes it’s low and seductive, like on “U.” Sometimes he sounds a bit like OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, especially on “Love You Crazy,” by far the album’s catchiest track. With its chanted (in actual monk style near the end) chorus and heavy drum beat, it’s the kind of song that would have everyone singing along at a concert. It’s a wonder it wasn’t released as the lead single.
Instead, Ekko chose “Time.” As a marketing strategy, it makes sense—it’s the most “Stay”-like track on the album. The music here isn’t as stripped down, but it’s equally emotional. Acoustic guitar sets the rhythm and melody while violins embellish to give the lyrics urgency. Expressing that yearning through metaphors about the Garden of Eden somewhat lessens the sharpness, but it’s a far more poetic and interesting song because of it.
While “Time” is probably the most downbeat track on the album, it’s not the only. There’s the slow-burn “Comatose,” which isn’t quite as good, but might seem stronger if it didn’t come after the glorious one-two punch of “Mourning Doves” and “Burning Doves.” The first is a melancholy reflection on a dying relationship. Ekko reaches his highest register here and his occasional breathy moments in the chorus, especially on the word “love,” give the song a sort of heightened romance unique from the rest of the album. The second track takes all that uncertainty and says, screw it, let’s love anyway. Elegiac lines like, “Tell me that we’re too far gone/Tell me that we’ll be OK,” are replaced with the reckless passion of lines like, “We’re too young to be afraid to fly like burning doves.” It’s a striking shift and an energizing bit of storytelling that renders the following tracks slightly less impressive in comparison. Luckily, there aren’t many before the album ends and the last track, “Loner,” is a strong finish.
Despite its title, “Loner” isn’t a mopey meditation on being alone, but an upbeat seduction. “Come on, come on, come over,” he begs through the chorus, drums pounding in the background. It’s a surprising arrangement for a song that could have easily been a ballad instead. That could be said of most of the album, really. The lyrics lean introspective and hurt, but they’re often offset by big echoing music. It’s not a sound Ekko’s past work would have suggested, but it’s a hell of a lot better.
By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over every detail of America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture and celebrity obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to. You can find her risking her life by reading comic books while walking down the crowded streets of New York City, having inappropriate emotional reactions at her iPad screen while riding the subway or occasionally letting her love of a band convince her to stand for hours on end in one of the city’s many purgatorial concert spaces. You can follow her on Twitter to read her insightful social commentary or more likely complain about how cold it is at @MarisaCarpico.