Shura’s debut album showcases her talent as a writer, singer and producer. It’s an eclectic mix of genres: from electronic, lush R&B slow jams, stripped back guitar rock, to 80s glam pop and even trip-hop. Though the young singer/producer hasn’t overreached by trying her hand at so many different genres, at times the album feels like a collection of her various projects and (albeit successful) experiments. Yet a strong theme of autobiographical archiving and coming-of-age runs through the album and gives us a compelling first glance at Shura’s personality.
Music is often our best way of expressing complicated and difficult to articulate emotions that overwhelm us when brought on by the stresses of life and relationships. No other set of experiences is more of a mine field of these overwhelming emotions than the transition from teenage angst to young adulthood. Shura’s debut album Nothing’s Real is a smooth and seemingly effortless ode to that angsty and distraught time.
Shura (Aleksandra Lilah Denton) dives right into the mess and has come out the other side with a handful of beautiful songs, all while still having some fun. On the album’s most recent single “What’s It Gonna Be” Shura takes what sounds, in some lyrics, like as regretful break-up song, “If you’re going to let me down don’t let me down slow,” and turns it into a bouncy, empowered 80s pop ballad. “What’s It Gonna Be” ends on a playful high note, with Shura singing, “I don’t want to give you up, don’t want to let you love someone else but me.” This sounds more like the confident demands of someone who has grown up enough to know what they want. Here, as on Indecision, the comparison to Madonna is particularly apt but her vocals also remind me of Euro-pop icon Robyn.
The retro influences go beyond Madonna and all the way back to early electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, with the synth melody at the beginning of the title track “Nothing’s Real”. We get the sense that the deeply textured feel of the whole album, with its multiple styles and references, is more than just an exercise in music history, but the result of a very personal exploration. In the intro (I) and interlude (II) Shura apparently samples home recordings of herself, as a child, and family. The stylised references to smooth eighties guitar (which made me think of the more ironic attempts of Destroyer’s Kaputt or Justin Vernon side project Gayngs) continue throughout the album from the intro to thetand-out guitar rock of “What Happened to Us.” However, what sets Shura apart is that she has managed to take the cheesy and saccharine textures of ‘80s pop and add layers of personal nostalgia—as well as her genuine experience of growing pains—while avoiding cliché and irony.
On “Touch,” a single which came out over two years ago and garnered the singer much attention, Shura shows another side of her musicality in a soulful almost R&B style slow-jam. She shows off her flexibility in vocal styles with her facility voicing the understated breathy notes and brassy yearning of the chorus, “There’s a love between us still but something’s changing, I don’t know why.” As well, her talent as a writer/producer comes through in spades with the refined simplicity of the hook and mixing of “Touch.” Here, we should mention Denton’s production partner on most of the songs on the album, Joel Pott. The pair show considerable skill in the arrangement and layering of the album’s many styles, mixing everything from ambient to glitter-pop seamlessly.
There’s also something decidedly English about the sound of the album. “Make It Up” sounds like a lost up-tempo XX song while displaying Denton’s talent as a guitarist (which she learned to play at 13). And there’s also reference to the dance-funk and jungle styling of Londoners Ben Khan, Jungle, and the AWOL Jai Paul.
It must be said that in an industry as dominated by male producers and engineers as pop and electronic music, it is refreshing to see a woman not only take the helm as singer and song writer but in the studio as well. Shura’s success has even recently earned the recognition of electronic legend Fourtet, with a remix of “Touch.” Hopefully, this is more than an outlier for the industry and marks the beginning of a trend.
Finally, the trip-hop and mix of short unfinished musical ideas of “The Space Tapes” doesn’t fit with the rest of the album’s themes and overall feel. Although I appreciated the chopped and screwed sample mixed over a satisfying hip-hop bass-line and wavy-pitched synths, Nothing’s Real already had a sense of completion in the first 12 songs. But what’s not to like when a writer, producer and singer with as much promise shows off a little more.
– Review by Derek Colley