No sooner had lockdown begun than the musical responses came. Over the last 18 months, we’ve had everything from heartstring-tugging fundraising tributes to essential workers, to Eminem dutifully comparing himself to coronavirus, to the miserable sound of Van Morrison metaphorically marching through London with a homemade placard lambasting Chris Whitty. It’s a phenomenon that shows no signs of abating, and why would it? A huge proportion of the new albums released in 2021 will have been made during the pandemic, and it would take a pretty superhuman effort to avoid the circumstances of their creation seeping into their contents.
So it is with the third album by Neo Joshua, or Nao as she prefers to be known. The first words that come out of her mouth on this album are: “Change came like a hurricane, 2020 hit us differently.” But And Then Life Was Beautiful’s opening title track offers an interesting take on recent events. Its sound isn’t sad or claustrophobic or wistful but airy and dreamlike, almost euphoric: high keyboards arcing around a misty guitar figure and sumptuous backing vocals. Amid the lyrics about hope coming someday and the desire to “smoke it out until it fades away”, Nao suggests lockdown may have had another side to it: a pause that enabled people to “know what matters to you … a moment just to think about all that is you”.
The rest of the album offers hints about why Nao might have taken a more sanguine view of 2020’s events and their impact on everyday life, dealing both with exhaustion on the self-explanatory Burn Out (the singer recently revealed she suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome) and the birth of her first child during lockdown. As everyone knows, the subject of new parenthood is a treacherous one for songwriters to essay: perhaps all the disturbed sleep knackers your artistic judgement, and when even someone as lavishly talented as Stevie Wonder at his early-1970s peak momentarily slips and burps up the ghastly Isn’t She Lovely? in delighted response to his newborn, you know you’re in difficult territory. Happily, Antidote swerves the worst excesses. Augmented with an appearance by Nigerian highlife singer Adekunle Gold, it sounds blissed-out and adoring, but never sickly.
The album’s sound diverts from both the “wonky funk” of her debut For All We Know and 2018’s synth-heavy Mercury-nominated Saturn. The beats are still in place and still frequently redolent of 90s R&B – an influence that heightens the impact of Postcards, a collaboration with experimental US artist Serpentwithfeet whose subtle retro flavour underlines that you’re listening to something you would never have heard in the 90s: a man singing an R&B ballad about his sexual relationship with another man.
But the musical tone seems to have shifted to answer the title track’s query about “how to float when there’s no control”. The electronics are dialled down to a series of delicate, airy shimmers and ghostly vapour trails. There is a stark piano ballad, Wait, but the album’s key instrument is electric guitar, liberally smeared with vaguely shoegaze-y effects. On Woman, a fabulous, witty duet with Lianne La Havas, it’s transformed into a muffled, elastic sound that slips and slides around the song’s reggae-inspired rhythm.
It’s a musical setting that points up the appealing weightless quality of Nao’s voice (even if she is capable of slipping into an earthy London accent, as on Better Friend, there is frequently something otherworldly about her unaffected high tone) and lends the whole album a hazily sunny early-autumn feel. It fits with the overall optimism of the songs, which even seeps into the tracks about romantic strife. On paper at least, Glad That You’re Gone sounds like one of those Adele songs in which she wishes bountiful good fortune on her ex’s new relationship with teeth gritted, eyes brimming and hands clutching a photo of his new partner with several teeth blacked out in marker pen. But the reality is different: there’s a sweetness to both the melody and the echoing vocal harmonies that bolsters the first word of the title – it sounds as if she is authentically grateful to be out of it.
Meanwhile, Little Giants has a spoken-word section that seems to sum up the album’s overall mood: “The world can still be as beautiful as you hoped as a kid … even when winter revolves around us, summer is not dead, it hasn’t been defeated … the next season waits for you.” The mood never feels trite on And Then Life Was Beautiful, but oddly infectious instead, perhaps because the songs are really strong, the lyrics admirably uncliched. It would take a pretty flinty character not to come away feeling buoyed, which is an extremely worthwhile effect for an album to have at this juncture in history.