I first discovered Shura a year or so ago, maybe even longer. A friend of mine posted about her visit to a festival and how “the line-up looked insane this year!” So naturally, being a sucker for an amazing line-up, I had to have a look.
To be completely honest, it didn’t do much for me personally. There were a great many DJs playing that I didn’t really recognise but as I’m always on the hunt for new music I decided to check some of them out. Shura was one of the names that popped out at me. I can’t explain why, it was purely a name but I thought it sounded somewhat interesting. I was delighted to discover that Shura was a young woman named Aleksandra Denton who also appeared to make her own music in her bedroom. Wicked, I thought to myself, I’ve discovered a new Grimes. (I am a big fan of Grimes and the bedroom producer ethos so that in no way is meant to sound sarcastic.)
At that time I could only find very little from her, I think two songs in total. Those were ‘Touch’ (and the fantastic remix by CANVAS – well worth having a listen) and ‘Indecision’. ‘Indecision’ is a great little number, a callback to classic ’80s Miami club floor-fillers. (I could easily imagine it on GTA Vice City‘s soundtrack, should they do a rerelease.)
Then there was ‘Touch’. Man oh man. The first time I heard ‘Touch’ it broke my heart. Broke is maybe too gentle a word. Absolutely decimated and crumbled it into a million little pieces. The slow tinkly synth-line accompanied by the thrumming bass is enough to drive tears to the tips of your eyeballs, and then Shura’s voice and lyrics kick in and you’re weeping in a soggy mess on the floor. It’s a song about breaking up, it’s a song about lost friendships, it’s a song about growing up and trying to figure life out. It’s a beauty.
So, based on those two songs, I kept an observant eye on Shura and now here we are with her first album, Nothing’s Real, at our fingertips. Or ear-tips. Ear holes? Whatever you want, but it’s here and it’s flipping wicked.
The album starts off with a blast of nostalgia. Opening track ‘(i)’ isn’t so much a track as a sample of a childhood scene being played out. The dusty workings of a cassette tape in play, a building M83-esque soundscape in the background, young voices and general playing can be heard, and immediately you’re transported back to your own childhood, a warm summer’s day when time seemed infinite and the adult world was on an entirely different planet. Then as soon as it begins its over again and we’re thrown headfirst into the album, and headfirst into the ’80s.
The nostalgia doesn’t go anywhere, in fact in remains firmly as a theme throughout. The opening title track puts us right back in the Miami clubs mentioned earlier with its brilliant synth opening, bringing to mind Michael Jackson’s ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’, while the lyrical content takes us on a very different journey, weaving a real life experience Shura had when she was rushed to hospital after suffering a severe panic attack. It’s a bizarre arrangement of sound and words but it works very well, the music infecting your limbs so that you can’t help but tap your feet, while the lyrics keep you grounded in the story. The added upwards inflection of the line “Game Over” in the chorus is the icing on the cupcake of nostalgia offered to us here. It’s a powerful opening to an album, juxtaposing the innocent childhood opening with the fear of the modern, clinical world of hospitals.
We then launch into ‘What’s It Gonna Be’, which may be the standout track of the album for me. The summer is called out again, with the opening guitar plucks bringing the sun’s rays into our minds and drenching everything in that wonderful L.A. sepia tone. Shura has obviously been influenced by many artists during her writing and recording, and this particular track brings Don Henley’s ‘Boys Of The Summer’ to mind, especially the line “I’m on my own / You’re on the beach hundreds of miles away”. It’s a wonderful nod to the original (even if it wasn’t meant to be or if she’s never even heard of Don Henley or the track, I DON’T KNOW THIS IS JUST MY FLIPPING OPINION ON MUSIC BACK OFF OK BUDDY?) Again Shura knows how to mix upbeat, dance-ready music with melancholy lyrics to great effect. Crying in the middle of the dance-floor just became that little bit more appealing.
The first truly sad song of the album comes next, in the form of the beautiful ‘Touch’, which I mentioned earlier. It’s still as powerful now as it was when I first heard it, the lyrics hitting some home truths that you didn’t even know were inside you. The glowing synths drift around you as the song engulfs you completely, Shura’s gentle voice seeping into your brain. The song speaks of longing, but also of acceptance, which is possibly the most heartbreaking element of it. She knows she wants to touch this person, to reach out and grab them, but she knows, knows for a fact that she can’t. It’s like the track ‘Lights Are Blinding My Eyes’ by The Streets.
‘Touch’ conjures an image of standing in a full club watching the object of your affection with someone else, or leaving and drifting further and further away from you as you stand there rooted to the ground, unable to move and unable to speak. It’s been tough to listen to this one sometimes (purely based on my own mindset at the time) but it’s a wonderful song.
Continuing the theme of sadness and longing we drift lethargically into the next track “Kidz ‘N’ stuff”, which is much more about the desperation of longing. Gone is the acceptance of the situation – instead you’re left with the crippling desire for answers, the unwillingness to let the whole relationship crumble. You can hear the pain behind the lyrics, the mere mention of getting married and having kids an obvious big, serious step forward while the added single word ‘stuff’ implies the barrier still there, as if it’s a wish of Shura but she’s almost too scared to properly bring it up with her partner. It’s a wonderful little literary technique that works perfectly here, especially for this generation of heartbreaks (I’m 25, she’s 25, so I know what she’s talking about). In fact, the whole album is the perfect accompaniment for having your heart broken in 2016. (That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable if you’re in a healthy relationship, not at all, but that it doesn’t hurt to have someone sing how you feel back to you if you are on the edge of despair.)
The songs merges perfectly back into the world of ‘sisco’ (sad-disco, a term I’m fairly sure I just made up but let’s run with it. Maybe Sadisco? Sadsco? You decide, I can’t be sad for all of us) with the upbeat ‘Indecision’. Another happy-music-sad-lyric song, it’s about how her partner has still “got the love, boy” and thus a degree of control over her. She’ll go with what he wants her to do, and she’ll wait for him until he makes his mind up. There’s a wonderful little wobbling, arching guitar/synth solo midway through the song (I can’t tell which but I think it’s a guitar), which brings the song to a final chorus and close.
We then dive into the other contender for Best Song on the Album: ‘What Happened To Us?’. A pulsing drumbeat opens this song, making foot-tapping an inevitability. The lyrics take us back to Shura’s youth, describing the first time she saw the object of her desires “at lunch” (an obvious nod to school days). The chorus reads as “I was never, for your love”. However, the way Shura delivers the line, you could easily mistake it as “I was never ready, fuck your love”. It changes the song and tone completely, the former sounding closest to the end of a break-up (or breakdown) with Shura trying to shed some light on the situation between them. The latter, however, transforms it into a snarling attack on her partner, condemning them for making her fall for them. It shows Shura can go on the attack which, after ‘Touc’ and ‘Kidz ‘N’ Stuff’, is refreshing.
After that assault, we’re sent back in time to Shura’s past again with another home video/recording of Shura and her brother as children talking to their dad, Shura describing how she doesn’t love her brother at that moment as she’s “really cross with him a little bit”. There’s a slow synth-line floating through the background of the recording, adding a sad weight to it. It’s a nice calm down moment after ‘What Happened To Us?’.
From there we jump into ‘Tongue Tied’, possibly the funkiest song on the record. A wiggly, korg-like synth-line cuts its way to the surface throughout the song, a little beach guitar following it, driving the rhythm home. It’s a song about Shura’s confidence in the object of her desires wanting her. Here she’s well aware that she’s wanted, and she’s throwing the shyness onto another person. It’s a nice little touch after the sombre opening tracks.
As much as ‘Tongue Tied’ is about Shura’s confidence, ‘2Shy’ is the complete opposite. The confidence has gone; this is Shura’s plea for someone to recognise her feelings for them, she’s just too shy to say it. It’s a much gentler, much more electronic song than Tongue Tied. Until the final chorus that is, which bursts forward in a wall of choir-like synths and arching guitar plucks, before settling down again. It’s almost as if Shura has finally found the confidence to speak up, before realising it’s all in her head. It’s a clever back and forth.
The song in between those two, ‘Make It Up’, has clear nods to another great band at the moment, Haim; the guitar-picking is reminiscent of tracks from their (fantastic) first album Days Are Gone. It’s also a throwback to the rock-pop of the ’80s (which is obviously a huge influence on Haim as well) and works perfectly. It’s not necessarily a dancefloor tune, but it doesn’t need to be, it works perfectly at what it does. (That’s not to say there’d be no hip-wiggling when it comes on.)
The last two songs, ‘White Light’ and ‘The Space Tapes’, feel almost completely separate from the rest of the record, mainly due to their length, clocking in at just under 10 minutes each. ‘White Light’ is a wonderful disco-inspired track, a squidgy synth-line pulsing throughout. It’s another callback to the Miami clubs of the ’80s; you can almost imagine Tony Montana leaning back in his huge chair and regarding the dancers of the night. Despite its length it never feels forced, as the musical elements slowly swirl away from each other until we’re greeted with a rolling soundscape which descends into just a piano and another family recording, this time of Shura’s Russian mother telling her off for smoking (which is also a secret track titled ‘311215’). Shura’s voice gently sings over the top of it, lamenting about how she never wants to lose her mother, and that she’s scared it’s going to happen. It’s a melancholy finish to the song, but not an unappreciated one.
The last track, ‘The Space Tapes’, is an amalgamation of the other tracks on the album, sampled and looped and remixed under every banner from ambient to hip-hop to psychedelic. It’s almost as if Shura got Tyler, The Creator to mix all her songs together. It’s a nice touch and a great way to finish the album, giving us a little conclusion and reminding us of just how good Nothing’s Real actually is.
I’m so happy for Shura, and so happy I randomly picked her name to listen to, and so happy that she’s got to where she is here. Nothing’s Real is a tour-de-force, especially for a debut, and has many songs that can easily be described as the soundtrack of your summer. Go out and listen to it now, don’t let indecision get the better of you. What’s it gonna be?