I found that while I still had enthusiasm for reading new books and watching new films and TV series in lockdown, when it came to music my overwhelming mood was to shut down, listen to the music I already loved, and not make much effort to get into something new. I did however make an exception for a couple of my favourite ladies, both making interesting pivots from their previous work.
Laura Mvula was probably the last person I expected to re-invent herself as a sparkling 80s dance-pop diva, but while it’s a move into a more commercial territory, with bold brassy sound, shimmering synths and luscious orchestrations, her songs retain her off-kilter sensibility and unusual approach to vocal arrangements. This means that, just like her previous two albums, Pink Noise takes a bit of repeated listening to get into, however on the plus side it means that the record is more than a mere 80s homage, channeling everyone from Grace Jones to Prince to Michael Jackson. Speaking of Michael Jackson, his influence is especially undeniable on the album’s highlight and biggest banger, the irresistible and infectious Got Me.
I didn’t realise that this album came after Mvula’s messy breakup with her previous label and a subsequent crisis of faith, which couldn’t have been easy, so it’s especially nice to see her having fun and sounding so vibrant and confident on this comeback record.
I always approach the new stuff by the long-time favourites with some trepidation – what if they finally drop the ball and start to suck?? – but I’m happy to say that Annie Clark a.k.a. St. Vincent maintains her incredible, impeccable streak of fantastic albums. Like Pink Noise, her new one is an unmistakable tribute to a previous musical era, in this case the early 1970s (though one of the standout songs, My Baby Wants a Baby, rather bizarrely borrows from Sheena Easton’s 1980 hit 9 to 5 (Morning Train)… here’s a sentence I wouldn’t have expected to write in a million years).
The most distinctive retro sound on the record is the sitar guitar, which lends many songs a hazy, dreamy vibe – entirely deceptive as the album is nothing like a rosy-tinted nostalgic celebration of the past. The title refers to Clark’s father’s release from prison after 10 years of incarceration, and while she directly mentions her father in just one song, the rest of the lyrics are similarly disquieting, addressing domestic abuse, fear of motherhood, and name-checking famous harrowing songs from other female artists, such as Me and a Gun by Tori Amos and Nina Simone’s incendiary Mississippi Goddam.
The music, for all its surface lushness, likewise often has an effect that’s discomfiting and dissonant rather than warm and pretty. While I can’t pinpoint yet where it ranks among St. Vincent’s other releases, this is an impressive and striking album, with some of her most personal and powerful lyrics.