Perchance To Dream: Nadine Shah’s Holiday Destination

Hypnotic, righteous and utterly compelling, Nadine Shah's third album is an extraordinary exploration of the health of our country and our world. This is her most powerful statement to date, says Julian Marszalek

The story has been the same for decades, centuries even, only the way we’re telling it has changed. From the moment that human beings grasped the concept of travel and the ability to move from one place to another, the suspicion of people from different locations, those of different colours and creeds, has been stoked by those whose agendas benefit the few rather than the many.

The hate, fear and suspicion aimed at immigrants, refugees and the displaced become more rancorous as media channels compete with each other for eyeballs, with the news rolled out 24/7 across TV, the internet, smartphones, laptops, radio and even giant screens in town squares. Examination and analysis have given way to lurid sensationalism and ignorant commentary, masquerading under the banner of free speech. And, as ever, where the shortcomings of our supposed leaders become all too painfully apparent, it falls to culture to make some kind of sense of the mess we’re in.

As evidenced within the pages of tQ, heavy topics don’t have to be delivered heavy-handedly, and Nadine Shah’s third album is deft in dealing with uncomfortable subject matter and the vexed issue of how we treat our fellow human beings. As a second-generation immigrant – her father is Pakistani and her mother is English of Norwegian descent – Shah is well placed to tackle these thorny issues head-on, offering a refreshing take from a perspective that rarely gets a look in. For this second-generation immigrant, there’s a moment of air-punching validation on ‘Out The Way’ when Shah hits back at those detractors and trolls: “Where would you have me go? / I’m second-generation don’t you know?”

Nadine Shah is no stranger to weightier matters. Her debut album, Love Your Dum And Mad, found her dealing with the stigma of mental health, a subject that raises its head once again on Holiday Destination, but with this album, Shah’s scrutiny of the wider world and the narrative that currently drives it has ensured her most powerful statement to date.

Initially inspired by an Al Jazeera documentary made by her brother about the Gaziantep refugee camp near the Syrian border, Shah was further galvanised by news coverage of refugees turning up on the shores of the Greek island of Kos. Though the images of tired, hungry and despondent human beings who’d endured unimaginable hardships and tribulations were shocking enough, it was the filmed reactions of some of the holidaymakers that truly appalled. Here, among the suffering and misfortune, were people complaining that the sight of these so-called migrants had ruined their holiday.

Her sense of rage of ‘Holiday Destination’ is palpable throughout the title track, not least when Shah pointedly asks, “How you gonna sleep tonight?” But Shah doesn’t point this line just at the selfish holidaymakers. This is a question that the refugees must surely ask themselves, night after night and day after day as they seek some form of safety. It’s a brilliantly sharp and double-edged sword that’s being wielded here and one that prevents Shah from falling into the trap of empty hectoring.

Along with her musical partner, Ben Hillier, Nadine Shah has paid as much attention to the music as she has the lyrical concerns that churn at the heart of this album. This is music that jolts, jars and demands attention but without the paying the price of accessibility and inclusivity. The obvious touchstones are the experimental end of PJ Harvey and the mid-80s period of Siouxsie And The Banshees, but this isn’t to damn Shah with faint praise. Indeed, like her antecedents, Shah is working within an established form yet is constantly twisting and turning to take detours where they’re least expected. Take ‘Evil’, a track ostensibly concerned with mental health yet one that could easily be applied to the travails of immigrants (“All these people think that I’m evil/Like I’m the living devil himself”). Those circular and steady drums pulse with a sense of menace that suggest an impending feeling of collapse are given release with the white light of slashing guitars that oddly offer respite.

But it’s on ‘Out The Way’ where Shah and Hillier truly excel themselves. Eldritch, off-kilter guitars and stabbing bass runs temper the martial beats with a thoroughly disturbing and nagging piece of sax blowing, and the result is hypnotically beguiling and utterly compelling. One imagines it’s a lot like looking at a nuclear blast; it can only lead to trouble yet it’s so difficult to tear the eyes away. This is the kind of music Manic Street Preachers should have made after The Holy Bible instead of the tepid quasi-metal that’s been their frequent default setting.

As evidenced on ‘Mother Fighter’, the music is driven with precision and a meticulous eye for detail. And here again is that double-edged sword, because it never feels mechanical or unfeeling. Indeed, it’s as if the sentiments at the heart of these songs are, like their subject matter, fighting against fastidious and unyielding rules. And it’s from these struggles that Shah and Hillier score a righteous victory.

Holiday Destination isn’t easy listening but nor is it uncomfortable. Shah is smart enough to apply nuance along with light and shade. This doesn’t feel like a jab to the chest or an empty slogan barked from a megaphone, but the start of an ongoing and developing dialogue. Consequently, the album’s joys and rewards open slowly and incrementally, and with each repeated visit come new rewards. While it may not offer any concrete answers, Holiday Destination makes bold steps towards exploration, examination and understanding. And right now, those are precisely the moves that we need to be making.

Nadine Shah will host an hour of Quietus radio next Friday 1 September at 1pm as part of our Day Of Radio.

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