Nadine Shah has been forced into making tough decisions throughout her career: at sixteen she left her native north east for London to become a student of jazz alongside Amy Winehouse, before rapidly concluding who was the superior talent and heading instead off to art school. Her first album, Love Your Dum And Mad, arrived in 2013, while her third, Holiday Destination, was polemically agitated and won a Mercury Prize nomination.
Kitchen Sink finds the singer arriving at several life crossroads, both career-wise and personally. Regular listeners used to her unflinching glare being directed at the likes of Donald Trump will wonder how much this caustic tension will smart when turned inwards. The answer comes with the opening lines of Trad, which nods to Anna Calvi and deals in the no-win compromises of modern womanhood: ‘Shave my legs/Freeze my eggs/Will you want me when I am old?.’
Elsewhere, the stains of racism, fanned in Britain by politicians and celebrities alike, are dealt with on the title-track, bigot neighbours (Shah is a British Asian) eviscerated over a skeletal clutch of piano and stuttering beats with, ‘Forget about the curtain-twitchers/Gossiping boring bunch of bitches’.
Even if anyone wanted to just participate from the back of the room, there’s little hope of squirming past the evocative sketches being drawn. Opener Club Cougar, with its sax parps and staccato, hiccuping delivery, runs an unforgiving eye over the male libido in equally quotable terms, the Latin synthesis smothering a feeble pursuit with a snowflake in hell’s chance of success.
Much of the tension is eased by the omnipresent throb of Shah’s voice, an instrument that she’s able to use with sublime control, summoning up anger, coolness or contempt on demand. On Buckfast, the singer is almost coiled as the drunk protagonist flounders from takeaway wreckage to toilet bowl and back again. At times, perhaps inevitably, there’s the vaguest hint of bitterness and exasperation, but it never overwhelms what are intended to be real stories of anti-love and sex by proxy.
Wrapped together, these tense provocations never retire to a safe distance, pulling the pin but then hanging around. This peaks on Ladies For Babies (Goats For Love), all skinned-knuckle programming and then hit hard by a shouted, in-yer-face chorus, and then on the dream-like closer Prayer Mat, a slow-motion break-up song which dissolves in sync with the doomed relationship.
Some might balk at flaunting these levels of honesty, but Nadine Shah is unafraid of that, or being a woman in a man’s business and a citizen of a country sleep walking into fascism. Kitchen Sink isn’t an easy record to identify with; lust is scorned, the energy is sometimes primal and its heroines always make sure the glass slipper gets sent to the bottle bank.
In other words, it’s as 2020 as any other release this year.