Nadine Shah – Holiday Destination

Of Norwegian-Pakistani descent and brought up in the north east of England, Nadine Shah identifies as a second generation immigrant. And she’s not shy in coming forward when talking politics, or indeed mental health issues that dominated her debut (as a result of two very close friends committing suicide) and the perceived personal and romantic inadequacies that informed her second album, Fast Food. This time around many of the themes on Holiday Destination stemmed from 2014 when her filmmaker-brother produced a documentary for Al Jazeera TV on a refugee camp in Gaziantep, between the Turkish and Syrian border (Shah produced the music on this occasion). Were given further impetus thanks to the rise of nationalism here in the UK (which started to rear its ugly head when the Referendum was in full swing) and abroad.

As on her previous two albums, she is laying bare her problems, fears and anxieties, helped once again by long-term producer/collaborator Ben Hillier. Inspired by the political spirit of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living in the City’, Holiday Destination may not quite have that song’s musical joie de vivre, but it is nevertheless full of important observations from someone who deeply cares enough to display a photo of conflict-torn Gaza on the cover.

Musically, Holiday Destination follows a similar path to that of Fast Food, full of post-punk style guitars, bass and grooves and with plenty of offbeat noises, but with perhaps a slightly deeper and richer palette. For instance, opening track ‘Place Like This’ brings in Hillier’s love of Talking Heads, the gently African-infused grumbling grooves allied to Shah’s deeply resonating timbre that reminds me of the cool delivery of Grace Jones and which finishes with a sample of a mass chanting of “refugees are welcome here”. It’s a key moment, Shah determined to offset the omnipresent fear of immigrants and refugees around the world, a wholly misplaced apprehension that is disgracefully fermented by right wing medias, here, there and everywhere. It’s a subject she fully immerses herself in on the menacing krautrock-style title track, a groove not a million miles away from Can’s ‘Mother Sky’. There’s more dissection of anti-immigrant feelings on ‘Out the Way’, Shah giving a powerful vocal performance in step with the dirgey of trance-repetition similar to a more subdued Swans. “Where would you have me go? I’m second-generation, don’t you know?”, with Pete Wareham’s stuttering sax imparting even more menace in the overall tone. Moreover, ‘Yes Men’ tackles brazen media manipulation and kowtowing within the early The Cure-like dirge.

Meanwhile, ‘2016”s stuttering, minimalist guitar, bass, drums and keys combo is reminiscent of a less rampant Gang of Four, as Shah contrasts the humdrum ‘normality’ of people around her, with her own heightened politicisation, whilst looking for simple human comfort. “Cruel 2016, was the year that took our idols / What is there left to inspire us, with a fascist in the white house“. ‘Evil’ takes her sense of being on her own one step further, as she reverts back to tackling mental health stigmas via a mix of harsh rhythmic guitar interludes and a vaguely swampish beat. “All these folk, they think I’m evil, like I’m the living devil itself“.

The great tracks keep on coming. ‘Ordinary’ is anything but and yet it’s perhaps the most poppy moment on the album (but still not likely to receive much in the way of main stream airplay) despite the inspired and unexpected interplay between crescendoing piano lines, synth melodies, grooving bass and drums and pleasant noise effects. The final track, the synth and electric drum based ‘Jolly Sailor’ is a revisit to her roots, up in Tyneside, with the title a reference to one of her local pubs. It’s Shah letting off a little steam at the bar, at the end of a hard working album, a celebration of the innate good nature of the people and, without overtly referencing this, a retort to those who think the North of England is full of racists and nasty people. It is, in short, a song of hope at the end of a long tunnel, albeit laced with much drink.

Nadine Shah (along with Hillier, who is for all intents and purposes an equal partner in this endeavour) has delivered a masterclass. An album that strikes deep within its potent muscularity, without resorting to overly menacing or exaggerated musicality, whilst Shah’s focussed vocal delivery is allied to an intelligent and humane lyricism that steers well away from being preachy. Indeed, her innate vulnerability remains clear for all to see but she’s a fighter and one who you sense will go to the ends of the world to make right a wrong.

Jeff Hemmings