Shamir review: Outsider songs framed by a psychotic episode
Father Daughter Records
Each month the musician Shamir Bailey writes warmly personable horoscopes for the website talkhouse.com. It is not, you suspect, a cash cow. Even an astrological sceptic will be charmed by the ebullient sass the 22-year-old brings to the job, dotting these celestial briefs with fashion advice, song recommendations and positive mantras, all guided by the encouragement that, whatever this imperfect universe may throw at us, we’re going to get through it together.
“We have universal permission to show up and show out!!!!!” he writes this month for Shifting Scorpio, his own sign, with the verve of someone who has recently known more inhibiting days: “Now is the right time to put out the right stuff to make things right for you.”
Evidently, Shamir practises what he prophesises. Dropped by the label XL following his 2015 break-out album, Ratchet, he retreated from the straight-up party sound of that debut – an infectious record full of electronic bounce and jump-rope catchy choruses – and pivoted sharply inwards. In April he released Hope, a howling work of four-track lo-fi, self-recorded over a single weekend and uploaded for free on SoundCloud. Two weeks later, Bailey experienced a distressing psychotic episode and spent a week in a psychiatric hospital, where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His mind, he realised, had been in an uneasy motion of surges and subsidence, like planets in retrograde and rising stars.
Revelations, which Shamir now puts out via the family-run independent label Father Daughter Records, is a deliberately rough-and-ready album that seems driven by this new insight. The new album – a sister album to Hope, again recorded in a short burst of time (in this case two weeks), as though during a electrical storm of creativity – directly addresses Shamir’s discomfort with the music industry, his mental-health issues and his reasserted, proud sense of otherness. It’s an album executed without polish, like a demo, which considers it more urgent to communicate the songs than to finesse them. That is unlikely to endear it to casual acquaintances. But as a sincere and personal statement it has universal permission to show up and show out.
Beginning with Games, a gothic torch song, the album finds Shamir addressing himself in raspy falsetto over a sparse and reverberant electric piano. “I don’t blame you and I won’t shame you / But I won’t continue to play this game.” It’s a bitter kiss-off to the “accidental pop star” Shamir might have been. He first emerged as a magnetic, otherworldly stripling from Las Vegas on 2014’s Northtown EP with a light falsetto and a scatter of musical inspirations from soul and folk to country and electropop.
From this distance, it’s Shamir’s flirtation with dance music on Ratchet that now seems like the aberration, which will disappoint fans of the buoyant insouciance of that record’s stand-outs, Call it Off and On the Regular. But the coherent theme of Revelations is the discomfort of trying to reconcile outward appearances with personal feeling, whether as a queer black artist in a straight white world, or as a vocal representative of a much-maligned generation. Take the lead single 90’s Kids, a grungy piano and guitar song over a beat that sounds like a decayed whip crack. Shamir sings: “We speak with vocal fry, we watch our futures die, 90s kids.” The chorus, whose rising backing harmonies fondly recall David McAlmont, manages to sound both wounded and defiant:
Our parents say we’re dramatic
But they always ask for more
Than we do
So fuck you
We out here struggling.
That Shamir is concerned with identity politics, however personal his perspective, is hammered home with Her Story and the second single, Straight Boy, another chugging guitar song whose run-on lyrics are barely contained by the rhythm. “Can someone tell me why I always seem to let these straight boys run my life?” he begins, with the same despondency The Shangri-Las once reserved for the leader of the pack.
It’s a kind of clapback to an industry that once hoped to sand down Shamir’s outsider edge enough to make it palatable to the mainstream. (The video for Straight Boy, also roughly hewn, shows Shamir gradually superimposed by a beatific white guy.)
It’s all a little too on-the-head to count as an artistic transformation of personal dissatisfactions. That rushed method means the lyrics, across the board, are less inspired than the snap and dazzle of his earlier songs. But it can also result in something disarming and fresh, like Float, a surprisingly upbeat number for something conceived during a psychotic episode. “So I’ll just float in time,” Shamir sings benignly, to no one in particular. “Meet me at the finish line.” On Astral Plane, a downbeat lament cushioned with consoling harmonies, Shamir alleviates the despair with a hopeful chord progression and echoes of that rallying adage, If you’re going through hell, keep going.
Like those horoscopes, the content is not as revelatory as advertised; but a simple message of support, sparingly delivered, is always useful when the stars lose their shine.