San Francisco – Nostalgia is a tricky thing. It’s one of the more complex emotions we feel as humans, as it embodies a yearning for the past that combines the happiness of memory with a strong sense of melancholy. It inflicts the sting of the passage of time and the futility of being unable to recapture or relive the past, yet also it brings us a sort of comfort in knowing there was once something that gave us joy. When it comes to music, a song or album can remind us of a period of time, or even just a moment, and then countless related memories come flooding through, like sunbeams burning off morning fog. These bundled neurons that contain our memories light up like wildfire, burning images of the past into the backs of our minds, all because of strings of melodies and harmonies that slide past our eardrums. Nothing’s Real, the debut LP from the UK’s newest synthpop sensation Aleksandra Lilah Denton — better known as Shura — is a personal odyssey grown from the seeds of nostalgia, nurtured by the bright light of new technology and quenched by the sweet rains of creative vision. It calls upon the music of her predecessors of decades past yet is infused with the aesthetic of modern electronica, as well as Shura’s own profound perspective.
Shura is one of many who, in recent years, have elected to take part in this sort of revival of 80s-era synthpop, yet she does so in a way that pulls the listener away from automatically making that connection. The material on Nothing’s Real is both varied and cohesive, and while elements of some songs on the album may spark a memory of say, Madonna or Annie Lennox or even Wilson Phillips, each track has a certain freshness that catapults back to the modern era. The same glittery soundscape is evident throughout the album’s twelve tracks, yet each one tells its own story, and each one has its own singular appeal that separates it from all the others. These are hits — no, classics — in the making, and the album is full of them.
Much of the material that appears on Nothing’s Real has been previewed as one-off singles that have been released over the past couple of years, and last year’s White Light EP prompted the Manchester native to go on a headlining tour (which I was lucky to experience firsthand). There’s a healthy balance of up-tempo dance tunes and more pensive, slow numbers on the album, and the way the album is arranged perfectly illustrates both ends of the spectrum in a way that keeps the listener engaged, and often surprised. The crackling hum of album prelude “(i)” could pass for a Boards of Canada tune, as it seeps across the speakers peacefully until being taken over by the title track “Nothing’s Real,” which is a disco/funk-tinged thumper of a song, complete with string sections and some very enthusiastic cowbell. It brilliantly embodies the sort of emotional disconnect and temporary insanity that one often experiences in trying to keep up with everything happening around us, especially in this so-called “Age of Information.”
This same sort of uncertainty is a common theme throughout the album, as evident in following track, the urgently upbeat “What’s It Gonna Be?” in which Shura presses her subject for answers regarding their possible blossoming relationship. Early single “2Shy,” the more tender, introspective eleventh track (featuring a punctuating three-note synth bit that is the aforementioned Wilson Phillips invocation) serves as a sort of opposite “partner” to “What’s It Gonna Be?” as it professes the same yearning, yet it does so without confrontation, demonstrated through the placidity of the instrumentation, and her insecurities in not being able to address it: “It’s taken me so long / Maybe I’m just too shy to say it / We could be more than friends / But maybe I’m just too shy.” “Tongue Tied” is a bridge between the two extremes, both musically and lyrically, as it pushes along with purposeful momentum in its bouncy arrangement, taking control of the situation with the repeated refrain of “Just say that you want me.” The tables are turned on “Indecision,” a rather buoyant song about the frustration of being involved with someone who is forwardly fickle. It’s filled to the brim with effervescent synths, punchy percussion, and mounds of distorted electric guitar that sound almost as if whales decided to sing rock songs.
Loss is an emotion that permeates the songs of Nothing’s Real, as well. On slower tracks, like the one-two punch of R&B-infused “Touch” and the almost symphonic “Kidz ‘N’ Stuff,” we experience remorse on two different levels: the former embodying the inner turmoil of wanting to reconnect with a lost love, while at the same time realizing the detrimental consequences of doing so (“I wanna touch you but it’s too late / I wanna touch you but there’s history”); the latter dealing with a lasting pain stemming from not knowing what went wrong. “What Happened To Us?” is another song dealing with heartbreak, this time from a position of someone who blames herself for the relationship’s demise. Musically, “What Happened To Us?” is bright and grand in its instrumentation and propelling drumbeat, while Shura’s voice sounds somewhat angry, yet mostly carries a sense of catharsis, towering above the din without losing any of its saccharine timbre.
Nothing’s Real is an album that never settles on looking in one direction. It looks both inward and outward, as it is both introspective and empathetic. It speaks to personal gain and heart-wrenching loss and even dabbles in the embrace of self-imposed lunacy (albeit temporary). While much of the LP focuses on the past — both lyrically and sonically — there is much to be said about the future. The album’s main aesthetic stays rooted in 80s and 90s synthpop, yet remains refreshingly new at the same time in its frankness and in the more technical aspects that make the album (literally) pop. In the album’s massive closer “White Light,” we are taken on an ultramodern odyssey of sound and words, as Shura looks to the promise of tomorrow, combining hypnotic dance beats, funk guitar, eerie space-tones, and extra-planetary imagery to create a world far different than our own. We are launched into another universe, filled with possibility, and it’s as if the tracks leading up to “White Light” are a countdown to takeoff. To be a part of Shura’s world is to experience love, loss, and luminosity. We can’t wait to see where she takes us next.
Nothing’s Real is now available via Polydor and can be purchased on iTunes. Shura will be appearing at several European festivals this summer (check out our coverage of her Primavera Sound set), and this fall will be opening for M83 and Tegan & Sara on certain legs of their respective North American tours, as well as a few of her own headlining dates. For more information and tour dates, visit Shura’s Facebook page.
Photo Credit: Hollie Fernando