Album Review: Shame – Food For Worms

[Dead Oceans; 2023]

It’s impossible to say you’ve truly witnessed a band live without having seen them from the front row. There’s a strange connection, an undeniable physicality in being tossed forward and pressed against the stage, the sweat of the vocalist hitting your skin as you cling to his shirt and he shouts into your face. There’s a code, in that small area, that can tear down any wall usually erected between the audience and artist, as well as between the individual attendees: anything is permitted now. Part ritual, part boxing match, part sex: a strange sort of greek theatre, blend of euphoria and therapy. Brett Easton Ellis described this poignant sense of ascension in American Psycho, when Patrick Bateman – completely disgusted by the noise of U2 – locks eyes with Bono and in a split second, feels their souls meeting, realising that Bono is the devil.

How to lock this power in a jar? How to record what is pure perception? British post-punk group shame have in their young career struggled with adequately translating their unique identity to record. Preceding the current scene of Windmill-bred and Dublin born post-punk bands, they were hailed by the British music-journalism industrial complex as the hottest thing since sliced bread, while receiving shrugs from cynical American nerd-writers as ‘just another indie band with jackknife guitars and rhythm changes’.

Truth was that shame managed to deliver a wonderfully written debut album Songs of Praise in 2018, which was recorded with too much measure to be recognised to be as good as it was. Drunk Tank Pink, their 2021 panic-attack-fuelled follow-up, course corrected this, pushing for even more labyrinthine structures and an air of brutalist abandon. It’s a stylish and clever record, holding its own in a year marked by standout post-punk releases.

But with abandon came clarity: soon shame found themselves deprived of ideas, stuck in sessions where nothing seemed to work. For the great wave of millennial indie bands that followed in the wake of Franz Ferdinand, this moment often marked the end, yet the London quintet committed to an emergency plan: they would have three weeks to write material for two shows, both solely derived of different, all new material. Locked in, they reconnected with the dense tension that made them unique in the first place, giving birth to the 10 songs of Food for Worms, their third and most physical release to date.

Recorded in a rough live sound by Flood – something he’s always been especially good in – the album is filled with kinetic moments of flawed grace and naked punches. The songs at times don’t even seem to end, just logically transforming into whatever comes next. In that way, shame actually sound more ‘post-punk’ here than ever before: instead of having abstract structures caked in glossy marzipan, they shout and grab and fling chocolate cake at their audience.

It was a genius move to hire Flood after his impressive work for Interpol’s unvarnished The Other Side of Make-Believe. Here he brings an even rougher sound to the table, tonally reminiscent of his work for Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, whose iconic artwork seems an inspiration for Food for Worms‘ cover. The two albums share a proclivity for majestic rock that is on the verge of falling apart. “Fingers of Steel” and “Alibis” find an incredible balance, with their slightly broken guitar tones duelling the sharp drum track and vocalist Charlie Steen serenading hope.

The quieter tracks, such as the beautiful “Orchid” and towering “Adderall”, use the empty studio space as additional instruments, where every reverberation and tiny delay is allowed to shine. Flood is wise enough to know that music doesn’t require perfectionism to communicate urgency, and with each muffled whisper and unclean chord the songs somehow grow. It’s pure, unabbreviated charisma.

Finding inspiration in Lou Reed’s lyricism and German sophisti-punks Blumfeld’s unkempt glamour, shame sculpted their writing to be more intuitive. Steen has found incredible images for what he understood as gradual changes within his friends as they grow older and become more disillusioned with life. On “Orchid”, he opens with “We were tourists in adolescence / We were lovers in regression / And every time I hold your hand / I feel something different in your palm”, while on “The Fall of Paul” he concludes “24 times I said your name / I seem to look my best / Whenever I’m depressed”. These solemn images of a directionless generation are reminiscent of the loss of identity Human League and The Cure chronicled.

Each song paints around open wounds that just won’t scar and characters that extinguished their flame before it burned its brightest. “Different Person” is the highlight here, using simplistic lines to effectively flesh out a specific portrait in lurid detail: “Fucking for the fun of it / Crying as you ask him if / He can change too / He can change for you / They talk in tongues / Light up a fire / Speak with vision / And soft desire / Buy blacker shoes / Cut shorter hair / Use bigger words like ‘debonair’ / You say you’re different but you’re still the same”. 

In all their rough splendour, the melodies meanwhile find an engaging twilight that never allows for typical classification. “Burning by Design” has moments of quiet shoegaze intensity, but then dives into a muffled spoken-word passage that almost resembles a nu-metal tone, only to finish on a brutal finale that recalls Preoccupations work. “Six-Pack” uses a hard rock atmosphere that gives it the charm of a forgotten Fraction session track ca. 1971. “Yankees” recalls the sharp melodies of Hole and The Pixies, while the waltzing melody of “Orchid” recalls The Smiths and Maximo Park, exploding in an unexpectedly loud finale. The album’s masterpiece comes in the nervous “Different Person”, which alternates between the abstract developments of a King Crimson song, the individual players casually showing off virtuosity, while strangely dark psychedelic melodies bring a flair of dark prog rock.

It would be an easy criticism to argue the raw live sessions made it hard to isolate Food for Worms individual nuances, forcing listeners to dig deep within the album to make out those structures, but that discards Flood’s cleverness and the band’s personality, as well as the unique aura this choice brought with it. It makes the record one of the most physical and passionate experiences in the current post-punk canon, replicating the intense directness of shame’s live performances. When Steen declares “And it’s finished!” at the end of “All the People”, it communicates an identity the band’s critics always claimed absent. With three records that all sound different and develop sonically, there’s no question shame are slowly growing a catalogue that, similar to The Fall or XTC, can showcase transformative qualities.

But Food for Worms‘ greatest strength is to chronicle how incredible it can feel to be in the presence of this band, at this moment. It feels as if you could almost reach out and touch them, rip open their shirts and feel their sweat. In decades, when the kids come to ask how this particular generation of bands sounded and looked and tasted live, this is the testament to point at: this is what it felt like!