Ironically for an album conceived in a womb-like room after a straight run of 350 gigs – according to frontman Charlie Steen – Shame’s Drunk Tank Pink makes you long for the sweaty intensity of a gig, because that’s where the driving guitar and existential angst of this album deserves to be heard. But at the same time, compared to the critically-acclaimed malice of their debut, Songs of Praise, Shame have developed both a greater texture and greater tenderness to their music. This is an album of light and shade, anxiety and release, twitchy bass and confident vocals. It’s an encapsulation of the tensions of being young and being in a pandemic. All delivered in forty-one minutes.
The opening track, ‘Alphabet’, highlights the band’s intentions. Combining the driving basslines of the first album with the jangly, driven guitars of post-punk, it gives the themes of language and reputation a sparse eloquence and irony; calls of ‘are you with me’ aren’t met in live performance, but rather by the isolated listener. Immediately we get a sense that we are in Joy Division territory this time round. Shame have combined this with the anger and fervour of the naturally charismatic Steen, who feels like a natural successor to Public Image’s John Lydon. To put it another way: Shame have pushed beyond the pure punk influences of album one, into a space where they can bring the post-punk influences of much modern indie music into play with the anger and anxiety of a post-touring generation.
This anxiety is perhaps the defining feature of the album. ‘Nigel Hitter’’s guitars reflect the jerkiness of its speaker, who laments that “it just goes on” and that he’s “burning at both ends naturally”, a feeling of tension and intensity that the pandemic has highlighted for everyone. The sense of disconnect in songs like ‘Born in Luton’ and ‘March Day’, where Steen has been “waiting outside for all of [his] life” but “nobody’s there”, and “still can’t go to sleep”, suggesting an unstable and overly reflective state of mind reflected in the intense textures and looping of the songs. Flourishes like the Devo-like twitchiness of the rhythm guitar in ‘March Day’ highlight this sense of manacled jumpiness, a desire to break out of something – even if you’re not sure what.
Conversely, the album deals in gorgeous moments of stillness, most of which come in a more reflective second half. ‘Snow Day’ pares down the myriad textures of the previous songs to frenzied percussion and a strong bassline, drawing the listener in through a gradual build-up and near spoken word narrative, where statements like “I live deep within myself just like everybody else” build up to a feeling of being overwhelmed.
The following song, ‘Human for a Minute’, capitalises on this; it uses a gently melancholic groove to add to the sense of dislocation in lines like “I don’t feel I deserve to be human for one hour”, matched by the need for connection in “I never felt human before you arrived”, and an instrumental break in the last thirty seconds which recalls a classic “crying in the club” vibe. These feelings are instantly recognisable to anyone who is in their early 20s, just into adulthood and not really sure what to do about it. Just like Shame themselves.
We get contrasting moments of deep catharsis in songs like ‘Great Dog’, which harkens back to Songs of Praise’s ‘Concrete’. Its driving instrumental tightness and mosh-pit moments create both a sense of anxiety and a release from it. This also plays with a great bit of theatricality, as Steen and the instruments break to banter “Fuck’s sake Si”; another bit, which like the instrumental brilliance of the band in general and Steen’s natural charisma, make you long for gigs.
Shame haven’t lost their IDLES-style punk routes, but have mixed it into an album where the warring feelings of speed and stillness add to the general sense of anxiety. Speed is then taken right down for the last song ‘Station Wagon’, which mixes influences like Elton John into a world of sci-fi reverb and piano. A sense of hope and oddness mix with a loss of eloquence found on the rest of the album, as Steen’s voice disappears into the dub. This song finishes an album that balances eloquence and a loss of eloquence, anxiety and confidence, and conveys a sense of being out of place, even if you’re on top of the world. Shame have diversified in both their influences and the textures of their songs, while maintaining the driving guitar and charismatic performances which made them stars.
Designed for gigs but destined to be largely listened to in lockdown, its context reflects the contradictions and conflicts which make Drunk Tank Pink such a strong album. Let’s hope its energy can be released on stage soon.
Drunk Tank Pink is available on all streaming platforms from today.
Words by Issy Flower