The alarm bells started ringing when Noisettes’ second album was trumpeted as their discovery of synths and dancey pop froth, and discarding the odd fuzz-guitar soul-punk skronk that made me love their first album so much. Then the first single from it soundtracked a car advert. Oh God. It’s going to be bland and forgettable and over-produced and will junk all the things that made Shingai Shoniwa and cohorts so odd and thrilling.
Thankfully, they’ve sidestepped that. True, on first listen, the fuzz has been held back, and Shoniwa’s voice is occasionally multi-tracked over lush strings. There are more of the quieter, almost old-fashioned nylon-strung ballady songs that peppered the second half of the first album (the opener “Sometimes”, and the odd, “To Kill A Mockingbird”-quoting “Atticus”), but also Winehouse-Motown parodies (“Never Forget You”), peppy New Wave pop (the title track), as well as the anticipated synth monsters. The single “Don’t Upset The Rhythm” packs a big singalong chorus, tinkly little triangle lines, and fun meta-textual touches (“Kick, snare, hat, ride!” sings Shoniwa). The other song with its eye firmly on a dancefloor is a punchy lady-anthem called “Saturday Night”, again with a poppy chorus and bwoooooomy synth swells and glockenspiels and a pigging cowbell solo. Shoniwa is still in sterling voice, her vocal melodies always interesting, not always expected, more controlled, a little more measured.
So, a more confident, less scrappy, more cohesive album, with some of the more interesting musical corners knocked off. Then, the lyrics come through. My.
The first album was slightly nondescript, lyrically speaking. Yes, it was exciting when Shoniwa sung things like “We compliment each other like Satan and Christ”, and “Tell your ASBO friend to sling his hook”, and we get a bit of that here (“Can’t get home? / You can use my dog and bone”), but there were also long songs about travelling on a Tube (“Mind The Gap”) which are thankfully not repeated here. And what exactly was “Bridge To Canada” about?
Here, however, the real shocker is that almost every song has at its heart a really, really upset woman. For this is surreptitiously a breakup album (or possibly the rarer form – a break-up-with-someone-who-isn’t-my-partner album), and it’s only on closer listens that you peel back the sometimes jaunty, sometimes pleasant music to find lines like “Taking lovers just might keep my tears at bay / But the dam will break at any hour” from “Sometimes”. Or “Just tell them / We could be building / Something out of our despair” from “So Complicated”. Hell, even the song that optimistically begins “There’s a boy I like south of the river” has Shoniwa impatiently demanding “Let it start! Let it start!” and depicts her standing in the rain without a coat.
Like one of my other favourite breakup albums, “Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer” by Of Montreal, here the highs are manic highs – frantic and urgent (“Go, baby, go!” yells Shoniwa, and – later – “Cheap kicks are alright!”) and the lows are self-lacerating (In “Every Now & Then”, she hopes against hope for “Someone to tear the curtains down / And let the light back into this empty room”; in “24 Hours”: “Hey lover, I’m in limbo”; in the title track “Tell me when will we learn? / We love it and we leave it and we watch it burn”).
It’s not a constant bummer (like “Sea Change” by Beck – an album I can’t get through without a quart of glycerin and a Jolt cola) because the music is varied and fun, although occasionally just minor-key enough to prompt a little soul-searching. In fact, despite the lack of a huge kickass single like “Sister Rosetta” or “Don’t Give Up”, it’s a more promising album than the first, as it doesn’t tail off as dramatically as “What’s The Time Mr Wolf?”, and an album as barmy, and British, and intelligent, and emotional, and old-fashioned-and-yet-modern, should be purchased and reacted to. So do that.
But seriously, please, someone give that girl a hug.