Shame’s Songs of Praise is pretty damn praise-worthy
“How does it feel? Would you rather it’s real? Or would you rather it’s fake?” Charlie Steen would like to know. The lead singer of Shame, a new post-punk band out of South London, spends his band’s debut album, Songs of Praise (2018), trying to arrive at an answer to this question. He does so by spitting out half-earnest, half-sardonic answers in mumbles, screams, and deadpan dialogue against a dense swirl of bass, drum fills, and stinging guitar work.
Songs of Praise is largely successful because the youthful group manages to slip out of the sense of “sameness” that can make post-punk songs feel rather indistinguishable and dull when listened to in bulk. This comes in part from how well the album translates the highly-praised energy of Shame’s live shows into a recording. You can almost feel the sweat dripping from songs like “Donk,” for example, a two minute scream-fest with drum fills so violent I found myself worried for the health of Forbes’ kit. In concert, Sheen carries himself like the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra, shirtless and possessed with a terrifying magnetism. In the studio and in person the instrumentation matches Sheen’s energy; two guitars, a bass, and vicious drums work with and against each other in a sort of grungy orgy; the effect is one of highly technical vulgarity, like polished mud.
The translation from live rawness to recording is not always perfect, however. Several of the tracks on Songs of Praise suffer from an over-reliance on call and response chants and mind-numbing lyrical repetition, techniques that can be fun in concert but which grow grating after multiple listens at home with headphones. This is especially true of the album’s weakest track, “Friction,” a song whose political statements, while laudable, are so overt its almost painful; like if Timothee Chalamet’s character in Lady Bird had taken up poetry: “Do you ever dream with the Dreamers? Do you ever weaken the weak?” (etc…). Steen sounds bored throughout “Friction” and this boredom translates to one’s listening experience.
Shame is more compelling when they slip their earnest political anger in via more subtle, humorous methods, as they do in “Visa Vulture,” a single released in 2017 which critiques PM Theresa May. Steen croons like a forlorn lover over jangly guitar chords, asking “Do you feel like a commoner?/ Exposed and dominated/Have you gained a moral conscience?/Or are you not that degraded?” The juxtaposition between wholesome love song and bitter satire gives the song a sneaky punch.
In addition to its expressions of political anxiety and moral outrage, Shame has quite a bit to say about the strange position they find themselves in as a relatively successful post-punk band in 2018 (and ‘19) . Shame is the latest in a long list of British guitar bands promoted by an English music press eager to find the next big (white-male) group of rock gods: the next Smiths, the next Oasis, the next Arctic Monkeys. Constant proof seems to be needed that rock is still relevant as a musical genre, which often means that new bands are over-promoted before they’ve fully grown into their sound (the Palma Violets are one example that comes to mind here). Shames’ anxiety and amusement in being perhaps prematurely pushed towards this position is evident in both their album and their interviews.
Interviewed by The Guardian, Steen and drummer Charlie Forbes argued that the idea of a rock star is “Quite incredibly dated,” and “offensive as well, in a lot of ways. It will be a white male, skinny, perfect hair, who sleeps with women daily.” The band attempts to subvert and work their way out of the expectations placed on them and arrive at something real, rather than fake, through a sincere confrontation of their own confusion.
There’s unabashed cynicism, for example, about the potential reception to their music on their catchiest song, “One Rizla:” “You can choose to hate my words/ But do I give a fuck?” This punkish posturing is undercut by the raw neediness of Steen’s vocals, however, as he chants “I hope that you’re hearing me” over and over until his voice breaks into a guttural yelp on “Concrete,” a moment made all the more potent by the sudden absence of instrumentation.
Songs of Praise is by no means a classic but it’s more than worthy of a listen. It’s a product of legitimate musical ability, laced with a compelling combination of melancholy, playfulness, and vindictive rage. To answer Steen’s question from the first paragraph, Shame’s debut feels nasty, real and needed, like an auditory colonic for our shitty times.