Bubbling up from the sticky floor of Brixton’s “nasty” pub rock scene in 2018, Shame offered up an arresting blast of adolescent emotion with their debut album, Songs of Praise. The teenage quintet wore their deep sonic debt to The Fall and Gang of Four on their sweaty sleeves while lyrics by frontman Charlie Steen flipped between flippant snark and vulnerability. “Well I'm not much to look at/ And I ain't much to hear,” he sneered on single “One Rizla”, “But if you think I love you/ You’ve got the wrong idea.”
Nearly 200 gigs, a minor breakdown and a pandemic later, they’re back with a weirder, wiser second album. Recorded with Arctic Monkeys’ producer James Ford at La Frette Studios in France, the sophisticatedly syncopated Drunk Tank Pink is funkier and squawkier, now more indebted to Talking Heads (circa 1979’s Fear of Music) than The Fall. And the ability to conjure the tense, probing elasticity of the Heads at that time is no mean feat.
It opens with a clatter of cheeky Charlie Forbes drumsticks and a moody yawn of feedback before the band launch into “Alphabet”. Musically, it’s one of the least interesting tracks, but it offers a good rattle of energy against which Steen can reassure fans that he hasn’t lost any of his cockiness (“Now what you see is what you get!”) or inclination for startling self-exposure (“I still don’t know the alphabet”). It’s surprising to hear that the lyricist who later plays with lines by Shakespeare and Wilde can’t sing his ABCs but he’s been telling the press that’s the case. And that he gets a charge from exploring his insecurities on stage. That’s why he often likes to perform shirtless – because he has been uncomfortable with his weight. True to their name, they’re all about the shame.
Things get more interesting with second track “Nigel Hitter”, on which guitarists Eddie Green and Sean Coyle-Smith flick out angular, tendon-twanging grooves while Forbes teases dancers with expressive left-field beats. Steen yelps and talks about girdles and udders and fresh linen. I’m reminded of an early Talking Heads review in which a critic at one of their foundational CBGB gigs said David Byrne sounded “like a seagull talking to its shrink”. Is Steen consciously referencing Byrne’s “big suit” when he bawls: “Take the clothes off of my back/ They don't seem to fit”?
There’s certainly a lot of Byrne’s philosophical ennui in Steen’s struggle with situations that just “go on and on and on…” The same mood marks the pogo-friendly “March Day”: “I can’t get up/ I won’t get up.” Things are darker still on “Born in Luton”: about being locked out of a house in the rain. “I’ve been waiting outside for all of my life/ And now I’ve got to the door there’s no one inside.” It’s one of many songs that sound like anxiety dreams made music.
The 22-year-old Steen says he struggled with his mental health towards the end of Shame’s last tour, which the band told this paper left them feeling “like tourists” of their own adolescence. He retreated to a rented room in a former nursing home, which he painted a bubblegum pink to resemble a lurid womb. It was only later that he found out the colour has form calming troubled souls. In the late Seventies, psychologists attempting to improve behaviour in Canadian schools noticed children behaved better in rooms painted that shade. They took it further and learnt it had the same calming effect on aggressive prisoners when it was painted inside drunk tanks and jail cells.
Steen has described it as a period of introspection that taught him that “getting comfortable with yourself is a massive struggle”. In their own ways, I’m guessing the rest of the band had similar experiences, because Drunk Tank Pink offers a new sense of space, of notes ricocheting off walls. Green and Coyle-Smith clearly enjoyed experimenting with unconventional guitar tunings, playing energised ping pong with the tangy twists of key.
Highlights include spring-loaded single “Water in the Well” — all jerky-jerky groove and stuttering “I’m just your sp-s-special friend” — and the moody post-punk prowl of “Human, for a Minute”, kept firmly at a steady-cool pace by Josh Finerty’s rotating bass line. The band really find their confidence at these slower paces, as proved by the compelling meander “Snow Day”. It’s a track on which Steen climbs a hill and takes time to absorb the beauty of others as they walk past on their way to work. “Well I just have to close my eyes,” he realises, “And I can almost taste it/ The fresh air of freedom.” Stretched taut with striated strums and snare drums, “Snow Day” comes crisply loaded with all the arrogance, alienation and wild exhilaration of their youth.
It’s true that Shame aren’t the world’s most original band. But they wear their sharp, second-hand sound with compelling and cocky class.