I have a pretty basic question that I ask myself when I’m first trying to evaluate a new album by a favourite artist: is it as good as the last one? As excited as I was for Kitchen Sink, Nadine Shah’s fourth album, I knew that it was going to face a bit of an uphill struggle in that respect. Why? Well Holiday Destination was not only my favourite album of 2017 and my second favourite album of the 2010s, but it was also one of the only albums to ever talk to me on the personal and emotional level that it did. It felt like that album got me. It wasn’t only that songs like ‘2016’, ‘Holiday Destination’, and ‘Jolly Sailor’ encompassed so many of my political and social beliefs, but also the way that ‘Out The Way’ and ‘Evil’ touched on the experience of being a brown-skinned person in the UK since the EU Referendum was announced. An experience I share (parts of) with Nadine and one that isn’t talked about enough. The last few years have been so turbulent, in so many ways, that there was always going to be great music made about them. But Holiday Destination melded the personal and political so well that I felt seen and heard. It’s rare that music can do that.
So Kitchen Sink had some pretty big boots to fill. And if I’m being as honest as Nadine is in her music, it didn’t fill them for me straight away. But it is also worth noting at this point that Nadine doesn’t make music that is completely digestible on the first listen; she makes songs and albums that you need to sit with and absorb. I wasn’t in love with Holiday Destination immediately, either.
That said, there were some things about the new album that stood out on first listen. I was glad to see that the jagged guitar lines that were so central to the last record were still extremely prevalent here. I was pleased to hear a set of songs that built into frantic and energetic crescendos which mean that, even when she is singing about some hugely important topics, Nadine makes music you can move to. And I was happy to hear that, while there may be a different central focus to this album, we were still in the realm of the societal and the political. The funky protest songs. I was also immediately drawn to the song ‘Dillydally’, which has remained a firm favourite through repeated listens.
But while Holiday Destination had that intense personal connection for me, Kitchen Sink doesn’t. At least not to the same degree. Which is why it will probably never overtake that album in my own personal rankings. But this isn’t all about me. What I have absolutely no doubt at all about, is that there will be a whole host of people out there for whom that connection with this album exists. There has to be. Because just as Nadine shone a light on the personal and political outcomes of racism and xenophobia on Holiday Destination, here she puts a similarly intense focus on sexism and misplaced expectations of femininity. The amazing ‘Trad’ starts with the lines ‘Shave my legs/Freeze my eggs/Will you want me when I am old?/Take my hand/Whilst in demand/And I will do as I am told.’ The refrain of the song is ‘take me to the ceremony/make me holy matrimony’. In just eight simple lines, she lays out the thesis of this powerful album.
Similar pieces of magic exist throughout. The title song is an empowering piece of work about fighting the externalised and internalised misogyny that surrounds you, ‘letting’ the misplaced and unfair expectations ‘pass me by.’ ‘Kite’ is sonically the album’s quietest song, but its message is loud. This song seems to convey a more vulnerable feeling for Nadine, a time when maybe those empowered words of ‘Trad’ felt harder to come by. Potential album highlight ‘Buckfast’ falls somewhere between the two. It is an aggressive, angry song that feels like a release. But it seems to document a difficult, abusive relationship, switching between the abused and the abuser. On the surface it’s another Nadine Shah banger, but it tells a troubled and important tale. It might be her best song yet.
So where did I land on that straightforward question I asked at the start? Kitchen Sink is every bit as good and important as Holiday Destination. It is the album that catapults here even higher up my list of favourite artists (now top ten of all time, surely), but I also hope it will be the album that catapults her higher up the festival rotas and the charts. It doesn’t have those same personal resonances for me, but that is fine. Because I know this is an album will be making a lot of other people feel seen and heard in a way that only Nadine can. Her albums are like a therapy session in which you dance and laugh your arse off. I just hope that she’ll still be up for touring this album once she is able to tour again, so we can all get together in a room and enjoy the feeling of release that this album was made for.
Words by Fran Slater