After a hellish few years, versatile songwriter produces her best work to date
To say that Nadine Shah has been through a lot since 2020 would be an understatement. On top of a global pandemic, she lost her mother to cancer, got married, attempted suicide, went to rehab and got divorced. All of which is funnelled directly into her latest record. Although it explores pain, death, mental illness and the dizzying process of coming out of all of that, it’s also a record that contains bundles of beauty, tenderness, humour and even joy.
Made in collaboration with her long-term writing partner Ben Hillier, it is also musically the most varied and exciting album the pair have made together. The opening “Even Light” is driven by an infectious and bouncing bassline that drills into the core of the song as Shah’s voice floats atop, while subtle electronics bubble away and brass-like synth stabs punctuate. It sets the tone for an album that is leaps and bounds above anything else Shah has done before – a record that’s layered and detailed, coated with beautifully rich production, yet also spacious and considered.
Lead single “Topless Mother” is perhaps the track that feels most in keeping with Shah’s previous work, with a whiff of the PJ Harvey and Bad Seeds influence still hovering around, but the song is somewhat of an anomaly. The flurry of drums, crunchy guitars and animated vocal delivery – which, combined, could easily be mistaken for something by the Swedish psych-rock outfit Goat – soon gives way to an album that winds things down rather than cranks them up.
Any familiarities quickly dissipate: “Food Or Fuel”, for instance, absorbs the influence of the Indian disco-jazz-pop artist Asha Puthli, and turns it into a subtle funk strut that is soothing and hypnotising as it locks into its twisting, pulsing rhythm. Shah leans into singing more than ever here, so her voice feels like a vital instrumental force as well as functioning as an intimate and captivating narrator. This is most perfectly embodied on the sprechgesang track “Sad Lads Anonymous”, which sees Shah lashing out generous helpings of self-deprecating humour. “This was a dumb idea, even for you,” she begins, as a gothic groove locks in, and she recalls tales from “the madhouse” along with a preceding spiralling period. It’s brilliantly direct songwriting that is honest and raw but also goes way above the diary entry confessional. The lyrics are dark and anguished but biting, funny and vivid; it almost feels perverse to extract such pleasure from something so clearly rooted in torment and turbulence, but such dichotomies are what gives the album its flair and punch.
As a whole, guitars take a backseat role here and are generally utilised for adding texture and atmosphere, while synths are plentiful. Itchy, propulsive post-punk-esque rhythms are largely ditched for a more glacial and unfurling pace that gives Shah’s voice room to breathe and soar. On tracks such as “Greatest Dancer” and “Hyperrealism”, her voice sounds truly remarkable. On the former it wraps itself around immersive electronics and a potently hypnotic beat, while the delicate composition of the latter, merging piano and warm blasts of synth, leaves room for a vocal performance that at one point suggests Nina Simone before gliding into something else, sparkling with pristine and devastatingly beautiful elegance.
The closing track exists as a perfect embodiment of the album and Shah’s approach to tackling the difficult subject matter. Its title, “French Exit”, uses a phrase that means ducking out of a party without saying goodbye to explore her suicide attempt. “Just a French exit/A quiet little way out/Nothing explicit,” she sings over a gentle yet compelling beat that almost recalls Oneohtrix Point Never as it gently builds. It’s a roomy, expansive song that feels quietly haunting and devastating, perhaps even more so because it leaves such space for genuine contemplation as the album ends. It allows you, forces you even, to reflect on the remarkably hard journey this artist has been through, while soaking up the immense beauty that’s been created in its wake.