Sault – a semi-anonymous UK collective – have already made their mark with four extraordinary albums in the space of two years. Releasing their works without much warning, unwilling to talk about their art, they have become a prolific leftfield outfit torching the rules. Nine, their fifth album, is available to buy and stream for 99 days (until 2 October). It’s pretty special too – not least because it’s an album about the experience of growing up in London that thumbs its nose almost entirely at the capital’s rich history of music genres, both black and white.
We are accustomed to hearing these sad, angry, mischievous stories told as the fast 8-bit rhythms of grime or hip-hop. But Nine eschews the sounds synonymous with London; it only hints in passing at dubstep and rave. You really have to pinch yourself at the audacity, too, of a track called Trap Life containing 0% trap beats – the now-dominant strain of hip-hop here as in the US. Rather, Sault turn to warm African-Caribbean sounds, and righteous anger played out as playground chants. A hard-hitting song about London’s gang infrastructure sounds like the Chemical Brothers’ Block Rockin’ Beats.
Sault have always confounded. Nine follows their genre-melting albums of 2019, 5 and 7, and their twin records of 2020, Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise). The latter two were impassioned outpourings in sync with last year’s international Black Lives Matter protests. All offered up an unexpectedly boxy, retro sound: rolling drums, funk bass and R&B groove, rogue analogue keyboards, and a sampledelic aesthetic. Vocalists Cleo Sol (UK) and Kid Sister (US) were as likely to chant as they were to sing or rap; African and Caribbean inflections were ever-present.
Throughout Nine, Sault double down on this vinyl crate-digger vibe: a rolling break here combined with an unexpected Beatles tilt there. The electronic Afro-funk of ESG or Tom Tom Club still looms high in the mix, as it has on all Sault’s records, but there are songs here – such as the lovely Bitter Streets – that recall, of all things, French chanson.
Nine returns to Sault’s earlier album art: titles formed by matchsticks, and a fire about to be lit. The visuals speak loudly so that the artists involved don’t have to: joining Sol and Kid Sister are UK producer Inflo and a handful of collaborators. Inflo (Dean Josiah) is better known as Michael Kiwanuka’s producer on Kiwanuka, his Mercury-winning album of 2019; Josiah is also involved with Little Simz and Jungle.
Like Adele (19, 21, 25), Sault have a thing for odd numbers. Nine showcases its namesake twice: the title track turns on a delicate retro guitar motif holding aloft Cleo Sol’s cooed vocal. Another “nine” occurs earlier, on Trap Life: “Don’t reach for that nine, nine, nine,” Sol begs, referring to a firearm; the repetition also suggests dialling 999.
An Instagram statement explains that the band’s origins lie in London’s council estates, where resources and options are limited and people can fall into even more harmful situations. The final song, Light’s In Your Hands, talks of kids growing up too fast, traumatised.
The spoken word is paramount here. One of a number of spoken interludes, Mike’s Story bears witness to one Michael Ofo hearing of his father’s murder. 9 finds an unnamed, older contributor explaining how being from a particular area inevitably marked you. If a sense of discomfiture has run through all Sault’s albums – they challenge, seethe and weep, confound expectation, change tack abruptly – there is never a sense of a misstep. As with previous Sault LPs, there is at least one thoroughly mainstream knockout moment: Alcohol is a smooth neo-soul paean to self-medication played out in gentle waltz time.
Just as Michael Kiwanuka featured on Untitled (Black Is), Inflo’s other close associate Little Simz appears here, her old-school flow detailing a life of Oyster cards and being triggered by sirens – Untitled themes given an unmistakable London flavour and dreamy organ keys, jazz horn and a tickle of hi-hat. There’s humour here too: You From London also pokes fun at American attitudes to Britons. (“Like people be going to work on horses and stuff?”)
Where the two Untitleds were aflame with anger as well as pain, Nine returns to trauma – and healing – as its central motif. “The pain is real,” Sault repeat. As on 5’s Add a Little Bit of Sault, the band briefly namecheck themselves. Their name has always carried with it the cold shiver of the word “assault”, but here they offer their music as a remedy. “The Sault will heal the wounds,” croons Sol.