For The Other An Other: Nadine Shah’s Kitchen Sink

On her new album Kitchen Sink, Nadine Shah cuts loose and makes the record she's always wanted to, finds Danijela Bočev

Photo: Fraser Taylor

On her fourth full length release, Nadine Shah engages with the gendered politics of interpersonal arrangements, keeping her gaze fixed on the time pressures of maturing womanhood. Kitchen Sink is an album imbued with the outsider experience, filling the great pop cultural songbook with the missing stories of various othered perspectives, characters whose lives haven’t unfolded as imagined, expected, or socially prescribed. “Predominantly the album is about choice,” Shah says, “to respect everyone’s choice of how they live their lives”.

This is Shah finding her rhythm, enjoying herself doing tongue-in-cheek domestic subversion. It’s the kind of album she has long wanted to make, when not urged towards a large scale social statement, like on her Mercury-nominated Holiday Destination.

Shah cares to challenge and play with the ingrained stereotypes working under the surface to reinforce inequalities concerning contemporary female experience, the fetters of tradition and their tricky blend – especially those innocently internalised via pop music. Kitchen Sink superbly accomplishes its tightrope walk between contradictions, posing necessary questions whilst having its own wicked fun.

Shah’s personal favourite Talking Heads’ album, Naked, admittedly nudged the sonics of Kitchen Sink towards her most stylistically provocative and sonically adventurous statement to date. Bryne’s depressingly jovial spirit spills into Shah’s new weird groove, previously lurking underneath the shimmering Radio 6-friendly surface, with the avant-garde and popular elements now most successfully combined. Her unique blend of styles, noir post-punk blues or base rock roots are more than ever revealed as canonical tropes thoroughly deconstructed by her fascinatingly peculiar musical imagination, revealing at its core an unapologetically artistic intent. Shah proves masterful in articulating the artful thrill, giving substance and gravity to the sublime, suspended hypnotic atmosphere enveloping fully-fleshed rhythms.

On Kitchen Sink percussive innovation co-stars with Shah’s impressively toned vocals, appearing as simultaneously molten and crystallised. This sense of dramatic emotion fuelled by an overpowering desire inflects Shah’s expression (repeatedly begging comparisons to PJ Harvey). But the solemn emotive earnestness of Shah’s earlier work is here tempered by greater vocal and thematic playfulness creatively pushed to her most artistically self-assured performance.

‘Ladies For Babies (Goats For Love)’, borrows its title from a painting by her brother as a child, depicting a man with a goat for lover. Here Shah digs deep in the collective pop-cultural psyche and her internal 90s jukebox, the track being a direct reaction to Ace Of Base’s ‘All That She Wants’. But Shah takes the Swedish reggae hitmakers at their most literal meaning – albeit with a deft gender reversal, poking fun at a man wife-shopping for a trophy uterus. Subverting the sexist tropes of pop songs through an unexpectedly bestial turn of phrase, ‘Ladies For Babies (Goats For Love)’ jolts the psyche out of acquiescence with its content in one sonically outstanding wait, what? moment. In the most tastefully twisted blend of sonic disparities, tightly chopped guitar jolts shine on the backdrop of innovative percussion elements, enigmatic atmosphere and Shah’s teasingly deadpan delivery, vocally exploding on the audacious chorus at her most ferociously thrilling. The independent female spirit Shah crafts here is utterly compelling, possessing the kind of dark horse aura, repeatedly stripped away by staccato flashes of a fearsomely confident woman coming fully into her own power.

The album’s title track is a theme song for the empowered outsider, evading the "curtain twitchers" who only see "a strange face whose heritage they cannot trace". A Northerner of dual Pakistani-Norwegian heritage, Shah is hyper-aware and expressive of all identity facets, singing in her strong Geordie accent, throwing in vocal mannerisms nodding to her South Asian roots.

‘Trad’ brilliantly fades in with screeching guitar noise, an eastern-tinged melody creeps in urgently, anxiously corroded by a hollowed-out psychedelia reminiscent of Sacred Bones’ artists, Exploded View, until it kicks in on a surprisingly bouncy rhythm section. That catchiness is quickly levelled by Shah’s deeply sobering alto cutting in and spilling the album’s guts, its centrepiece point (and, apparently, initial creative spark): "Shave my legs, freeze my eggs, will you want me when I am old?"

The overinflated cultural metaphor of the biological clock continues to inform a great deal of scientific sexism, despite being based on outdated and highly questionable fertility data. The false ontology of the biological clock upholds traditional values, often unwittingly disseminated by well-meaning relatives. Despite many internal rhythmic processes, there is no mythical clock rooted in any biological reality. Temporal experience is not a sensory process.

In the end, nobody is invulnerable to time, but only a woman’s worth has been given this steep expiry date, youth supremacy reducing maturing female to a ticking time womb. It erodes romantic relationships, pitting desires and the supposed hardwiring of men and women against each other, under a false division.

In deconstructing tradition, Shah is careful not to throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater. She unflinchingly confronts the windmills of societal expectations placed upon a woman under everyday systemic sexism. But when she longingly sings "take me to the ceremony, make me holy matrimony", it’s a sincere desire for preserving an intimate contract based on deep feeling and integrity. It’s just the vows that need to be rewritten. The outer liberation now needs to be replaced by the internal revolution within the union, a progressive re-framing, salvaging a worthy human experience from the clutches of constrictive, outdated traditional modes.

And it is precisely the fully emancipated feminine spirit that takes the issue of redefining relationships most engagingly, being no longer condemned to them nor narrowly defined by them. Or as Simone de Beauvoir put it in 1949, "To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her; let her have her independent existence and she will continue nonetheless to exist for him also: mutually recognising each other as subject, each will yet remain for the other an other. The reciprocity of their relations will not do away with the miracles – desire, possession, love, dream, adventure – worked by the division of human beings into two separate categories; and the words that move us – giving, conquering, uniting – will not lose their meaning. On the contrary, when we abolish the slavery of half of humanity, together with the whole system of hypocrisy that it implies, then the ‘division’ of humanity will reveal its genuine significance and the human couple will find its true form."

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