Shame: Drunk Tank Pink review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week

(Dead Oceans)
The London band went from playing a 350-show stretch to nothing at all – and while tunes and originality are lacking, their subsequent dislocation makes for some thrilling music

The annals of rock history are packed with songs bemoaning the lot of the artist on tour. You can understand the urge to write them – they proliferate on second albums, when artists who have done almost nothing except tour since their debut search for inspiration – but, nevertheless, attempting to elicit sympathy for a rock band among people who do a proper job for a living always seems dementedly optimistic.

Under the circumstances, you have to take your hat off to London quintet Shame: whatever you make of their second album, they’ve successfully come up with an entirely new variant on a well-worn theme. Drunk Tank Pink – which takes its name from the colour that psychologists discovered automatically weakens anyone who stares at it for two minutes, and which went on to become the decor of choice in cells for intoxicated arrestees and the title of a bestselling book about how subconscious forces affect our behaviour – features songs about heartbreak, but it’s essentially an album about the privations of not touring, the struggle to decompress into normal life (which, in the case of Shame, critically acclaimed but low-selling, includes the aforementioned proper jobs) after two years on the road, during which the band, still in their teens when their debut album came out, are supposed to have played nearly 350 shows.

Shame: Drunk Tank Pink album cover
Shame: Drunk Tank Pink album cover Photograph: Publicity image

The timing of its release is an intriguing thing. The music it contains would be potentiated by being performed live, which won’t happen for the foreseeable future; songs largely deal in riffs and dynamic shifts rather than tunes, and the kind of sprechgesang vocals having a moment thanks to Fontaines DC and Idles. Equally, the themes it delves into – dislocation, boredom, the weirdness of a life that was in constant motion suddenly turning static, the urge to fill time on your hands with hedonism – stand a better chance of hitting home with an audience that hasn’t spent the last two years on the road than they ordinarily might.

There are certainly moments of self-indulgence that might cause you to roll your eyes a little. Born in Luton appears to concern itself with frontman Charlie Steen returning home from tour to find himself locked out and his housemates absent – “buzzer broken, I guess I’ll just wait, no umbrella and it’s starting to rain” – a situation that was doubtless frustrating, but which perhaps didn’t warrant commemorating with a song, particularly one that sets his predicament to five minutes of admittedly exciting, shouty punk-funk and elevates it to matter of existential despair. “If the body is willing then so is the mind,” he bellows, “if you can’t trust in either prepare to decline”: mate, calm down and go and wait in Costa, I’m sure they’ll be back in a bit. But these are outweighed by moments elsewhere in which the lockdown-bound listener might find themselves nodding along with his predicament in empathy: “Are you waiting to feel good?”; “Will this day ever end? I need a new beginning / it just goes on, it just goes on.”

The music slips its moorings from Shame’s acclaimed debut, Songs of Praise, and ventures into darker, more abrasive waters: there are points when Drunk Tank Pink’s knotty guitar riffs, off-centre time signatures, sudden changes in tempo and bursts of dissonance resemble a less self-conscious Black Midi. When it works, it’s viscerally thrilling: the scouring blast of Harsh Degrees, the slow-build-to-cacophonous-climax of Station Wagon, and the sheer oddness of Snow Day, the least bucolic-sounding song imaginable about losing yourself in nature.

You are, though, occasionally struck by the sense that some of Shame’s new directions aren’t quite as new as they think they are. Someone has been listening to late 70s/early 80s post-punk of the Talking Heads and ESG variety, which is fair enough: the problem is that so have a lot of other bands in recent memory. If you date alt-rock’s renewed interest in scratchy guitars, funk rhythms and yowly vocals back to the release of the Rapture’s Out of the Races and on to the Tracks and Radio 4’s Dance to the Underground, the post-punk revival has been going on for more than 20 years, almost as long as some members of Shame have been alive, longer than the distance between the post-punk era and the first releases that reanimated its sound. It’s a musical trope that still works, as evidenced by Drunk Tank Pink’s stuttering Nigel Hitter, but the sense of familiarity is overwhelming, at odds with the album’s aim.

In fact, Drunk Tank Pink is best when it shifts towards something more soft-focused. Human, for a Minute slackens the tempo, Steen stops shouting, the prickliness of the guitars is dialled down, there are vocal harmonies on the nagging, endlessly repeated refrain of “I’m half the man I should be”. Emotional impact isn’t sacrificed. If anything, the song hits harder than its ostensibly harder-hitting neighbours: proof that – for all the noisy excitement generated elsewhere – there’s a power in stepping back and reining things in.

This week Alexis listened to

Jamal Bucanon: Waved
Belatedly discovered via the excellent One New Song Per Week blog, Bucanon’s debut single is gorgeously, hazily regretful, its sound lurking somewhere between bass music, R&B and – as the blog points out – the 80s dream-pop of AR Kane.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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