In the documentary ‘To Be Free’, commenting on the relationship between artistry and activism, Nina Simone says,
“You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true for painters, sculptors, poets, musicians. As far as I’m concerned it’s their choice. But I choose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That to me is my duty. And at this crucial time in our lives when everything is so desperate; when every day is a matter of survival; I don’t think you can help but be involved. Young people, black and white, know this. That’s why they’re so involved with politics. We will shape and mold this country or it will not be molded and shaped at all, anymore. So I don’t think you have a choice. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times? That to me is a definition of an artist.”
British artist Nerina Pallot has taken Simone’s above definition of what it is to be a true, authentic artist and created ‘The Sound and the Fury’, her fifth album, and perhaps her most moving. Produced by herself and her husband Grammy Award winning producer, Andy Chatterley. A vast and rich soundscape full of indie pop, hip-hop, R’n’B, blues and electronica influences crafted around lyrics that are both thoughtful, self-aware and at times, angry.
‘The Sound and the Fury’ was born out of the mammoth and challenging project, ‘The Year of the EPs’: a five track EP released each month over the space of a year in 2014. This brave, and possibly slightly mad idea was conceived whilst Pallot was recording her Christmas EP in December 2013, and after “one too many glasses of wine”. Despite the undertaking of a project of this size, it actually allowed for Pallot to bridge the gap between her 2013 album ‘The Year of the Wolf’ and ‘The Sound and the Fury’; one of the most expansive and beautifully written albums that she has ever done.
The album is a political one but not in the Live Aid sense. More in the vein of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Innervisions’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ both of which are intensely political but are done in subtle way against a backdrop of beautiful and moving music. In other words, ‘The Sound and the Fury’ doesn’t isolate the listener; you don’t feel like a spectator being forced to watch someone else’s political tirade but rather your own story is intimately wound up in the songs.
‘There Is A Drum’ opens the record with a haunting guitar riff, which is joined in unison by a deep and bellowing drum beat. The song was inspired by the death of British soldier Lee Rigby who was murdered in London in 2013. The track is Pallot’s attempt to make sense of something that can’t be made sense of. In her own words, “you can only hope that there is some sort of checks and balances in this world”, and that hope is powerfully displayed in ‘There Is A Drum’.
“When judgment comes/ The balance weighed/ All deeds accounted, all debts repaid/ Then shall we all be found/ And from the silence coms just one sound…”
‘If I Had A Girl’ continues in a similar vein with Pallot taking on the blatant and ridiculous sexism that we as women have to contend with on a daily basis. However, unlike a lot of the current “empowerment” and “girl anthem” songs that are making their way into the musical stratosphere now that feminism has become not only trendy but profitable as well, this song is undeniably honest and passionate, and in my opinion rightly so. Pallot doesn’t pussy foot around the issues that women face nor does she try to sugarcoat the message to make it more palatable for those afraid of the truth. If you want an anthem that actually represents the woman’s movement then this song is it.
“Oh your no means no/ But your skirt comes into question/ That you ask for it will be the suggestion/ You’ll work the live long day/ To take home half the pay.”
Pallot listened to a lot of old blues and soul records when making the album. ‘Spirit Walks’, a hymnal bluesy track is proof of this. Beginning with a simple drumbeat and acoustic guitar, the song transcends into a beautiful and sleepy string arrangement reminiscent of Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode To Billy Joe’. ‘Spirit Walks’ has a warm and familiar tone to it; giving reassurance when you may not have any bravery left in you. Pallot says of the song’s spiritual nature that, “I don’t feel I can claim this song as my own, as it woke me up at 4am, fully written.”
“The stars in the heaven, will light a way to see/ So I don’t fear, the spirit walks with me.”
‘Big White House’ is the biggest departure from Pallot’s signature pop and singer-songwriter sound. Full of luscious hip-hop beats and synths, syncopation at its’ finest, with elements of indie pop and early ‘90s urban and garage music, it is a perfect track to make this departure.
The first single from the album was ‘The Road’ was originally inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, and the very human quality of self-determination. However, after pairing the single with real life footage from the refugee camps in Calais, France where hundreds of people fleeing persecution and war in the Middle East have ended up, the song took on a different voice.
“But you don’t follow, you don’t follow/ You don’t follow, no you walk this road alone.”
‘Blessèd’ the penultimate track on the record and the one that always brings me to tears. It begins with the opening line taken from T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland. The song is a simple organic piece with heartfelt vocals and lyrics from Pallot, and a melancholy string section. ‘Blessèd’ for me is about hope but also its’ bitter cousin disappointment. The song really does reach down inside of you, rearranging your heart and soul, and never really leaving.
“And I don’t low if there’s a God above/ If he’s watching us/ If he’s keeping score while we battle some more/ Bargaining for just a few seconds more/ Suffer the weak, suffer the little ones/ Tell me, what have they done?/ But I have to believe there’s a reason to be/ Reason to keep holding on.”
Pallot has said in the past that she’s not really a brave person but for me this album is incredibly brave. Not only because it’s sonically very different from her previous releases or because it tackles some really politically and socially divisive issues but because she does both in such an authentic and relatable and vulnerable way. ‘The Sound and the Fury’ is an album of deep reflection; a communion with the current political and social landscape that is currently unfolding in front of us. A landscape which cannot be overlooked or ignored but one in which we must mold and shape or in the words of Nina Simone, “it will not be molded and shaped at all”.