Just to make things clear from the start, Nadine Shah’s new album, her third and most focussed record to date, is right up there with some of PJ Harvey’s best work over the past two decades.
It is almost Shah’s ‘Let England Shake’ (the similarities or crossovers are surprisingly many). Both are free-flowing, barbed and unpredictable. Both have awkward, disruptive moments. And both reference recent conflict. Although while Harvey rummaged through testimonies from soldiers and civilians involved in the Iraq war, Shah’s album has taken its central inspiration from a documentary – made by her brother Karim – about the conflict in Syria.
It is, however, more than just a record about Syria’s refugee crisis. Using this as a starting point (the first song she wrote for the record was the title track, prompted by a TV report showing tourists in Kos, complaining that the refugees were “ruining their holiday”) , she has made an album which reaches for bigger, more far-reaching themes.
It’s (broadly) about the rise of nationalism around the world; the gradual ongoing shift toward narrower worldviews; and the gang-like mentality of the mob (not to mention the contradictions she finds within herself).
It is also possibly the first record from a British artist (or at least one with some kind of profile – she’s championed by 6Music, lauded by numerous blogs) that attempts to reflect the baffling, often worrying, landscape we now find ourselves in.
This in itself, is interesting. We’re expecting (and already getting) records from American bands traumatised by Trump and the American election. But so far Shah, is almost alone, in starting to vent a worldview anger over here.
And believe me, a lot of people get it in the neck on this record – either directly or indirectly. It is not just the Kos Tourists (‘Holiday Destination’ and ‘Out The Way’) but consensus addicts (‘Evil’) and all shades of subservients (‘Yes Men’).
Once again, Shah’s musical partner Ben Hillier has helped shape a sound for the record that asks as many questions as the lyrics. Right from the off, on opening track ‘Place Like This’ the album delights in a sort of perverse idea of what modern pop can be. It is Grace Jones, PJ Harvey, and Shreikback. It it is a jerky dance which twists and turns. A record that feels like a restless night’s sleep, tossing and turning.
Two of my favourite tracks are the so far overlooked (and more inward looking) ‘2016’, with its sinewy Gang Of Four guitar and ‘Ordinary’, which has a lovely gliding vocal line, which swoops about an inch above a pulsing bassline, niggly piano interruptions and a wasp-like keyboard.
If there is a difference between Shah’s latest and ‘Let England Shake’ then it is that Harvey attempted to summon up a poetical goodness in an often bleak landscape; a sense of hope and a possibility we could learn from the past.
Shah too would like a brighter future, but seems less convinced of its arrival.