Over the last two years, Sault’s music has arrived out of the blue: no interviews, no photos, no videos, no live appearances, no Wikipedia entry, a perfunctory and entirely non-interactive social media presence. Physical copies of their three previous albums have credited Inflo as producer – otherwise best-known as the producer of Little Simz’ Grey Area and co-writer of Michael Kiwanuka’s Black Man in a White World, each of which won him an Ivor Novello award. Kiwanuka got a guest artist credit on their last album, Untitled (Black Is), released in June. So did Laurette Josiah, the founder of a north London children’s charity, who it turns out is Leona Lewis’s aunt. The only other available fact is that proceeds from the album “will be going to charitable funds”. Speculation about the collective’s other members has neither been confirmed nor denied, nor has anyone claimed responsibility for music that’s thus far been rapturously received on both sides of the Atlantic.
You could decry this approach as counterproductive. Perhaps a higher profile, a modicum of desire to play the game, might have helped turn Wildfires, the exquisite and excoriating standout from Untitled (Black Is), into the hit it deserved to be. Yet Sault seem to use the time they save by not promoting their albums or engaging with the public profitably. Untitled (Rise) is not only their fourth album in 18 months, it’s their second double album in just over 12 weeks. It’s a work rate that would seem remarkable at any point in pop history, but feels positively astonishing today, compounded by the fact that its predecessor gave the impression of having been largely written and recorded in response to the murder of George Floyd, less than a month before it was released. Pop history is littered with swiftly released singles reacting to events in the news – two of them made No 1 during the Covid-19 lockdown – but you struggle to think of an entire album doing so, let alone one as good as Untitled (Black Is).
Its successor matches those high standards. It’s more obviously dancefloor-focused – its influences shifting from house to disco, from the perspiration-soaked post-punk funk of The Beginning & the End to Son Shine’s smooth 80s boogie, without ever sounding like a knowingly retro homage – and the overall mood has turned from sorrow and soothing to empowerment and resistance. There are tracks with names such as Street Fighter and Rise Intently (the latter an interlude based on an army drill chant); lyrics that urge “we are survivors, we are the titans” and “don’t ever stop for nothing”. Even the apprehensive-sounding Scary Times, where electric piano and luscious orchestration is undercut by a weirdly ominous rhythm that appears to be constructed from the echo-drenched sound of a plectrum hitting bass guitar strings, ends on a defiant call: “Don’t let them make you lose yourself.”
Straight away you realise you’re in the presence of something special. The first three songs function as brilliantly constructed dance tracks and keep messing with the listener’s emotions. Strong features beats spiked with explosions of dubby echo, an intricate mesh of Nile Rodgers-ish guitar and a terrific breakdown inspired by Brazilian batucada percussion. You could take its lyrics as straightforward paeans to dancefloor transcendence – “we’re moving forward tonight … we want better tonight” – but, as a later, noticeably more caustic track puts it, you know they ain’t, particularly in the light of what follows. Fearless is supremely funky, but the flurries of disco strings don’t communicate excitement so much as anxiety, the words shifting from defiance to something more troubled: “And it hurts on the inside.”
I Just Want to Dance, meanwhile, really is a paean to dancefloor transcendence, but it never allows you to forget what the song’s protagonist might be attempting to escape: the sound is claustrophobic and clattering, the words demanding “why do my people always die?”. There’s a great, jarring moment where the whole thing skids to a halt – like someone hitting the stop button on a turntable – before grinding back to life, the beat temporarily, disorientatingly out of time.
From its fierce opening salvo to its deceptively mellow conclusion – the sweetness of Little Boy’s piano-led melody, vocal delivery and children’s choir countered by the righteous anger in its lyrics – Untitled (Rise) hardly yields highlights because the quality never wavers: whoever’s involved, it feels like they’ve been galvanised to the top of their game. It manages to be as lyrically unflinching as the music is compelling – not the easiest balance to achieve, as acres of terrible protest songs historically attest. You’d call it the album of the year if its predecessor wasn’t just as good.
• Untitled (Rise) is released 18 September, available from Bandcamp and on streaming platforms
This week Alexis listened to
Reading Dylan Jones’ Sweet Dreams: The Story of the New Romantics this week led me to dig out this slice of 1978 DIY electronic pop, lavishly and correctly praised within.