Album Review: Nadine Shah – Kitchen Sink

[Infectious Music; 2020]

On her fourth album, English singer-songwriter Nadine Shah is tired of your shit. Well, she’s tired of the world’s shit – the stuff that we all have to deal with out in society, but more specifically, she’s had enough of the patriarchy, the sexism, the fear, the societal imbalances. Shah, who is no stranger to getting political or pointed in her songs, has released one of her most upfront albums yet with Kitchen Sink, which brings her sound to strong new heights, while also resting a touch too much on her laurels. 

Lyrically, while it can be hard to pin if Shah’s narrators are herself or some half-imagined characters, these songs waste no time in getting to the point. Opener “Club Cougar” combats the sexism inherent in so much of the world of love, with Shah pointing out how being only one year older than the man makes her a ‘cougar’. This feeling continues on the lead single, “Ladies for Babies (Goats for Love)”, which, despite its odd and abrasive chorus, provides a darkly humorous look at the ridiculous infantilization of women in society. “All he wants in fairness / Is a baby, a little baby / To care for, be there for,” sings Shah, in her dramatic, thickly-accented vocal delivery. It’s coy, but pointed.

This continues throughout much of the album. “Buckfast” tackles a man who believes he’s very powerful or smart, but clearly is anything but. “Trad” dissects the tradition of marriage, and what it might mean to be at odds with wanting it. The brazen “Walk” attacks “perverts” with “prying eyes” as she, a young woman, is simply trying to walk down the street.

Shah’s lyrics have never been known to pull punches, but she goes for pain instead of the kill across much of Kitchen Sink, and the album is largely stronger for it. Like her last album, the underrated Holiday Destination, she has a knack for wording and phrasing that sinks its teeth in slowly.

The album’s only real detriment is Shah’s penchant for writing very cyclical, repetitious songs and structures. While almost every song here has a groovy, rhythmic start, or a catchy melody, or a lyrical moment of great weight, most of them also fall into this familiar trap. Songs like “Club Cougar” and “Buckfast”, while enjoyable to the ear, end up simply repeating their first verses again in lieu of a satisfying closing or bridge. “Ukranian Wine” has some smart lyrics, but its lengthy verse-chorus-repeat structure grows tiresome. And then there are songs like “Kite” and “Walk”, which continue one of Shah’s favorite tricks to employ once or twice an album: long songs with very few words. At least “Walk” grows subtly with a gnarly, huge instrumental, keeping the song just interesting enough to sustain its runtime.

Sometimes, though, Shah gets it just right, and in those moments, it is clear to see what makes her a special songwriting voice. The title track treads a tricky line between accepting the latent discrimination all around you and taking it head on. “I wasted time with paranoia / Don’t let an ugly thought destroy ya / They’ll pick a fight just for the sake of it / But let it lay and they’ll grow tired of it,” she sings, warning whoever she’s speaking to just keep a low profile. The chorus – a mantra of “And I just let them pass me by” – is heartbreaking and almost eerie in its acceptance. 

Shah closes Kitchen Sink with “Prayer Mat”, which sounds like it may be an ode to her mother, or mothers in general. It’s a surprisingly lovely way to end such a passionate and fiery album, with images of this narrator and her mother trying on dresses and getting wine-drunk together.

Throughout this album, despite its structural flaws, Shah paints several affecting and profound images. Her words are almost always sung in her trademark jazzy, vibrato-heavy style, which adds some dramatic flair to even the more mundane moments, as do tiny instrumental touches, like the flutes and recorders on “Dillydally”. The instrumentals retain her distinct sort of post-punk-meets-cabaret vibe, and she carries the whole thing with power and grace. If only the songs themselves could be robust enough to match Shah’s strengths.