Album Review: Shame – Drunk Tank Pink

[Dead Oceans; 2021]

In the late 1970s, Dr. Alexander Schauss, director of the American Institute for Biosocial Research in Tacoma, Washington, studied the calming effects of the color ‘Drunk-Tank Pink’ or ‘Baker-Miller Pink’, upon erratically behaving prisoners. “Even if a person tries to be angry or aggressive in the presence of pink, he can’t,” Schauss asserted. “It’s a tranquilizing color that saps your energy. Even the color-blind are tranquilized by pink rooms.” Considering that the world is rapidly devolving into a literal hellscape, maybe it’d be wise for all of us to paint our rooms Drunk-Tank Pink to decompress from the overbearing calamity all around us. Charlie Steen, frontperson of furious post-punks Shame, was ahead of the curve in doing so. 

Written after being shell-shocked from touring as big-timers, Shame approached the creation of their new record with varying levels of trauma and the desire to qualm their anxieties and post-touring depression. Painting a small space with this hue of pink and calling it the “womb,” Steen and band went to work on delivering a project that offers a far more diverse product than their 2018 debut, Songs of Praise. The resulting Drunk Tank Pink distills the sounds of various post-punk acts both current and of years past into a project that is at times unoriginal, but is mostly thrilling.

Despite the proven psychological effects of the color Drunk-Tank Pink, there’s substantial evidence that its calming power is short-term and can even further agitate. While the pink ‘womb’ may have provided just enough tranquility to allow Shame’s collective consciousness the space to roam creatively, inevitably, the South Londoners’ feral nature kicks into full gear when they really start playing, resulting in a record that pins the band more anxious and angry than before.

Appropriately setting the tone for what to expect from Drunk Tank Pink, the lead single “Alphabet” is a rhythmic nervous tick that sees Shame pick up where they left off – lyrically cunning but musically unruly. With herky-jerky guitars and driving drums bringing the heat, “Alphabet” cracks an overtly devious smirk as the world around crumbles. Here, the band sheds its inner-Fall spirit, for a brief moment, eschewing slurry spoken rants for Idles-esque chants – in fact, one could easily imagine Joe Talbot popping a vein or two, singing “monkey see, and monkey do / just like me in front of you.”

It’s impossible to get through Shame’s latest without noticing the bevy of homages to both their predecessors and contemporaries. The high-strung energy of “Alphabet” spills over into “Water In The Well” and “March Day” with awe-inspiring explosiveness, and while these two moments are the type of songs that’ll blow the roofs off venues when concerts are allowed again, they aren’t without uncanny resemblance to others. With incessant thwacks of cowbell, rolling drums, yelping guitars, and Steen’s animated shrieks, “Water In The Well” is an unabashed throwback to Talking Heads and even XTC; alongside Sean Coyle-Smith’s oddly-tuned but groovy guitar playing, Steen’s voice is inflected with Andy Partridge’s dramatic tremble and David Byrne’s theatrical madness.

Meanwhile, the antsy “March Day” is a more modern tribute, a textbook Parquet Courts romper with an infectious guitar hook, driving bassline, and a shout-along chorus that’ll rile up the most indifferent music listeners. These musical odes – intentional or not – could have been uninteresting, but Steen’s menacing tone and relatable Gen Z musings allow these moments to transpire with some semblance of originality.

Around the middle of Drunk Tank Pink, listeners are besieged by the erratic “Born in Luton”, which brandishes a mix of influences, once again adopting the polyrhythms of Talking Heads, while also recalling the atmospheric haziness of more recent bands like Women. Once again, the only thing keeping this song from sounding like a complete ripoff of their forebears is the breathless eccentricity of Charlie Steen. Throughout the majority of Drunk Tank Pink, and on “Born in Luton” in particular, every word that rolls off Steen’s tongue is delivered with the same commanding viciousness he puts on during live performances, which have garnered Shame plenty of acclaim. When Steen laments, “I’ve been waiting outside for all of my life / and now I’ve got to the door there’s no-one inside,” he relates a serrated sense of pessimism dwelling within most Millenials and Gen Zs – though hope springs eternal with the arrival of a new year.

That is, we’d like to think there is hope – but there isn’t, at least according to Shame. Dreams and aspirations will come and pass, and impending doom always awaits somewhere out there. In this cannibalistic capitalistic system that we all continue to operate within, dreams are mirages, and self-destruction is a reality biding its time as we fool ourselves, formulating more empty hopes and aspirations. Few lyricists can express this better than Steen.

All this to say, Steen’s unique demeanor and poeticism can only carry this album so far.

What is most troubling about this record – and this applies to most other modern post-punk bands – is how obviously derivative a number of these songs are. It is clear the band are trying to separate themselves from the endless amount of comparisons to The Fall, but moving away from this blueprint proves to be a daunting task, as Shame will probably be bombarded with half-true Talking Heads comps – just as I have done throughout this review – until the release of their next record. When Shame push beyond themselves and into long-winded, no wave territory, they shows signs of what can separate them from the homogenized pack. 

The main evidence of this is on the opening “Snow Day”. Gradually sprouting eight legs, mandibles, and a blood-thirsty appetite, the album’s pinnacle moment morphs into a giant man-eating spider ready to devour listeners; it is sprawling, verbosely angry, and atmospherically dark and devious. Though the five-minute cut finds Shame snapping back to Mark E. Smith-isms, they push the envelope enough by challenging simple song structure and eschewing the need for a cheap hook or witty remarks. The band instead opts for a magnificent slow burn where Steen conveys the simple but profound pains of being a young person in 2021: “And you wanna just dive in / It’s the most beautiful thing you’ll ever see / And yet you walk past it all the time…”

The snarling ferocity of Drunk Tank Pink, especially experienced on “Snow Day,” will undoubtedly raise a few hairs and a slight smile as the acerbic charm of Shame pierces through. Unfortunately, the number of ideas already perfected by other acts distract from what real talent resides in this young five-piece. In the post-punk genre, it’s a challenge to stand out and offer something new, and hough Steen and company earnestly aim to make their voices loud and pronounced, Drunk Tank Pink is an all-too-often unimaginative album from what’s still a promising group. At best, this sophomore project suggests a band pushing itself in every direction and through every crevice of the genre to see what fits them and their messaging most effectively.