Her thrillingly muscular and darkly lustrous voice is a dazzling distraction, but to bend an ear to Nadine Shah’s lyrics is to be suddenly struck by how very rarely singers assume another gender in their own songs. When she claims, “I was once a virtuous man…I was once a handsome brute,” in “To Be A Young Man,” it’s both genuinely shocking and momentarily confusing.
Not that the South Tyneside artist has set out to confound listeners with her debut album; in fact, emotional honesty and directness are very much her currency, even if transparent narrative isn’t her trade. And if there’s an undeniable aesthetic empathy with early PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and My Brightest Diamond here, then the settings Shah gives her swarthy yet haunting songs is what marks them apart. Alongside piano, guitar and subtly parping reeds, she uses textured electronic noise and – on strikingly minimal opener “Aching Bones” — a kind of ominous percussive clanging that Scott Walker would probably approve of. Throughout, the dramatic ante is upped by Ben Hillier’s deep, at times cavernous production.
Moody and melancholic Shah’s album may be, but it’s far from fragile; “Runaway” is underpinned by an urgent driving beat while “The Devil” has a slightly lascivious sting in its tail, and “Dreary Town” affects a fairground breeziness, despite its themes of expectation and entrapment. It’s quite a trick to manage this much darkness without plunging into unvarying despair; Shah manages it stylishly, and seemingly without effort.