Barely two weeks into 2018, Brixton’s Shame have just made a compelling early case for Album of the Year. They are yet another band (but clearly not just another band) to emerge from the same South London scene as, amongst others, Fat White Family, HMLTD and YOWL and capture the same buzz as those other bright young things. Songs of Praise is a timely burst of socio-political angst, wrapped up in post-punk tones that draw comparison to the likes of Parquet Courts and The Fall. There is also a clever lightness of touch, dancing around the baggy suburbs of Madchester, while being propelled with the same frenetic energy that lifted The Rakes to brief fame in the early 00s. However, this is no pastiche and they only ever use these influences as springboards into something new, fresh and vitally now.
Opener ‘Dust On Trial’ begins ominously with an electric hum competing for space with brooding guitar riffs before Charlie Steen’s menacing low vocals kick in. There is a barely-hidden rage as he sings of: “A land of pure confusion known only to the wise, where satisfaction is devoured, dominated and despised” that is reminiscent of Protomartyr’s Joe Casey – though throughout the album, he shifts and swaps tones and moods to suit each track. The band have spoken passionately in interviews about the need for societal change, in a manner that would surprise only those that haven’t been paying attention to the shift in political engagement amongst the young in recent years. That sentiment brings a brutal and recognisable honesty to Songs of Praise, with much of it depicting the ‘always-poor, never-bored’ reality of life in the modern age of Austerity Britain.
On The Fall-esque ‘The Lick’, Shame rail against a popular culture that seeks only product that is “Relatable, not debatable” – music that is designed for listeners to: “Sit around in a circle and skip one minute and 30 seconds into the chorus, so we can all sing-along and gaze and marvel at the four chord future”. There is little chance of that with this band, with many tracks eschewing the traditional verse/chorus structure in a genuinely exciting and rewarding style. Despite the potent subjects, there is a cleverness that avoids haranguing the listener or speechifying – instead it merely nudges or prods. Tracks such as ‘Friction’ (“Do you ever help the helpless? Do you give them any time?”) force you to stop, listen and actually think. Rather than becoming an overly-challenging listen, Songs of Praise is never less than highly enjoyable while also thought-provoking.
Other tracks deal with the reality of life a million miles away from the golden elevators of the rich and famous. ‘Concrete’ digs deeply into the death rattle of a relationship in a thrilling back-and-forth between Steen and bassist Josh Finerty accompanied by an irresistibly frantic rhythm, while ‘One Rizla’ speaks of unmanicured nails, yellow teeth and “broke” shoes. The previous single ‘Gold Hole’ is the heart of darkness lying at the centre of the album, a venomous and visceral assault on the capitalist world, the no-holds-barred lyrics telling of a woman who will do anything for a life of luxury (“She feels so dirty, and she knows that it’s wrong, but she feels so good in Louis Vuitton”). It remains a bold and daring track, one that shows Shame will not shy away from asking uncomfortable questions.
In taking their sweet time delivering their debut, Shame have produced a perfectly crafted and expertly-produced album. While their fame and cult reputation has so far been built on incendiary live performances and a handful of singles, this is a record that will catapult them onto a much bigger stage (and deservedly so) while losing none of the rawness that has got them to this point. It has the feel of being ‘An Important Album’, one that will generate a larger ripple and inspire more voices to join a growing crowd who are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore. Songs of Praise manages to be both relatable and debatable. As a starting point to 2018, it couldn’t be any better.