Album Review: SAULT – Untitled (Rise)

[Forever Living Originals; 2020]

When SAULT surfaced out of nowhere in May of last year with their debut album, 5, we knew next to nothing about them. Nearly 18 months later, nothing much about that has really changed. With the exception of stray credits for Little Simz, Michael Kiwanuka producer Inflo, there isn’t much else to go on. And while a number of names rumored to be tied to the project have been tossed around, none of them have been confirmed or denied. They avoid traditional press and maintain two sparse social media accounts that we can’t glean any real information from. But, it’s clear when listening to the music itself how unimportant those kinds of details are.

What’s impressive about SAULT is how prolific they have been from the beginning: in just under 18 months Sault has put out a total of four albums with their two most recent ones coming out just 13 weeks apart from one another. Even more impressive is how amazing all of them sound. You would almost expect to hear a weaker song here or there or an out of place lyric that seems as if it were written in a rush, but everything feels as if it were meticulously crafted with a sense of purpose in mind. Which makes sense when you stop and think about our current climate where racism and injustice are both reaching a breaking point.

On that end, Untitled (Rise) feels like their most direct statement, and one that functions as an exercise in purging emotions so intense at times it can be overwhelming, but also cathartic at the same time. It also underscores the strain of constantly being pulled between pleasure and pain. The otherwise elegant R&B of “Fearless” feels carefree enough, but bubbling beneath its surface are both feelings of bitterness over the constant threat of discrimination and internalizing the suffering that comes from experiencing it, “All our lives / Simply feels like we’ve been trying to go back / To Africa / And it hurts on the inside.” There’s also the determination to “be fearless,” no matter what.

What makes Rise such a thrilling experience is how it builds from a light funk groove to an almost cinematic sweep of lush string arrangements and swooping harmonies that transforms it into something inspirational, if not spiritual. One example of how effective SAULT is at fusing conflicting emotions to remarkable results is “I Just Want To Dance”. With a limber bassline and sparse groove that recalls ESG, it shifts between being a love letter to finding escape on the dancefloor (“I Just want to dance / it makes me feel alive”) to outright anger over the continued senseless deaths of Black people (“I get kinda mad / We lost another life”) and pondering why it continues to happen. Think of it as dance music that comes with a sobering message.

The hope for a better future is ever-present on “Son Shine” (“You know that one day / Things have to change”) but you can almost make out the weariness behind that optimism even as the song glides along a slick upbeat 80s style boogie. “Uncomfortable” pairs a slippery jazz-funk groove with a blunt critique of growing police violence and the discomfort that the resistance causes those downplaying the issue: “Maybe you’re uncomfortable with the fact we’re waking up / Why do you keep shooting us?”

There are also a handful of interludes found throughout the album that prove to be just as powerful and meaningful as the proper songs themselves. “No Black Violins in London” addresses the toxic culture of calling the police on Black people for the most trivial reasons. “Rise Intently” meets police violence head-on in the form of angry military drill chants: “Made my brother choke / This here ain’t no joke / Can’t look me in my eyes / They ain’t saving lives.” And the otherwise comical “You Know It Ain’t” is an actual serious jab at performative wokeness by the kind of white liberal allies that would have voted for Obama for a third term.

Rise comes to a close with “Little Boy”, which offers one of the most unflinching glimpses of the consequences of intolerance here. Deceptively uplifting with a warm wriggling bass and plaintive pianos rooted in 70s soul, it’s written from the perspective of a mother singing to her young son: “Little boy, little boy when you get older / You can ask me all the questions / And I’ll tell you the truth about the boys in blue / And the lost truth for those who look like you,” and at that exact moment you can feel the otherwise upbeat mood diminishing as heartache creeps in from behind the pianos. A children’s choir brings it to a close, and the last thing you hear is that same piano playing a refrain that almost captures that moment when childhood innocence is lost to conversations about the harsh reality of the outside world. It’s an eye-opening experience that ends an already emotionally complex album on a somber note. You would expect something like this to have been written during the Civil Rights era of the 60s, but that it exists in 2020 where police violence and the rate of unarmed and innocent Black lives being taken at an alarming rate are present-day issues should leave you reeling with righteous anger.

Music like this is designed to provoke these kinds of emotions and to shed light on uncomfortable truths that many of us privileged enough to have never experienced discrimination might otherwise never give thought to. This is why we know next to nothing about those responsible for making it; by removing themselves from the conversation, SAULT force us to focus our attention instead on the music itself and the messages that come with it. More than writing simple protest songs, they are creating what is arguably some of the most life-affirming and confrontational music released in recent years – and all of it comes at a much-needed time.