Tempting to label this, Pallot’s fifth album since her 2001 debut Dear Frustrated Superstar, as something of an about-face, but that would be some disservice to her brimming back catalogue. While popular perception casts her as a singer songwriter in the classic mould, she’s savvy enough to not let being able to, huh, play the piano and sing in tune at the same time distract her from the ‘What does this do..?’ button. Hence, while her eventual breakthrough in 2006 with the 100,000 UK sales for Fires was sparked partly by the soaring ballad ‘Sophia’, it was the keen-eyed polemic of ‘Everybody’s Gone To War’ that nudged it towards the top of the album charts. Subsequent releases have signalled an undimming hunger to explore and to tinker with her skewed aesthetic, culminating in 2011’s Year Of The Wolf: a cool reworking of 70s MOR shapes and, aided by the production hand of Bernard Butler, home to her best songs to date.
So, where next for Pallot? How about a sharp left turn into beats, a more production-led sound overall and a lyrical imperative that swaps much of her close-up and personal dissection of relationships and behaviour for a broader and more storied worldview? The Sound And The Fury makes good on its title. Here’s an album that really shouldn’t be judged by its cover: a Rothko-esque design whose content is a world away from abstraction and vague fancies. Opener ‘There Is A Drum’ signals the shift: guitar all delta twang, beats crisp and processed, the atmosphere Southern backwoods swamp via Kate Bush’s ‘The Dreaming’. This drum “beats to the end of time / And from the silence comes just one sound…” It’s a doomy litany and Pallot’s singing style is tweaked to match: a near-slur, the diction dirtied up.
‘If I Had A Girl’ is a scraping, scratchy alarm – a feminist anthem but a million miles away from Feminist Anthem. “If I had a girl, I would tell her this / Don’t take no shit off no lord and master.” Pallot, a seasoned campaigner for women’s rights knows better than to hector. Hence the line: “You think we’re done, we’ve only just begun / The one thing you see, there ain’t no dicks on Page 3.”
Elsewhere, ‘Rousseau’ models booming house beats and ‘The Road’ introduces rythmns from the Souk and drone backing to match. ‘Boy On The Bus’ feels more immediately typical but by the time it slips in a middle eight lifted from mid-70s Pink Floyd, all bets are off. This is Nerina Pallot from a new angle, a bleak dissection of city living, a sidelong glance at the urban underbelly. You want to look away. “Sweet defeat, I wanna leave the city so bad,” she laments. One of her very best songs, you ponder her creative future as she starts to document the world and its injustices with an increasingly steady eye.
There is much to match the album’s highlight– the stirring aspiration of ‘Big White House’, the stark and fragile ‘Ain’t Got Anything Left’ – but nothing to top it. No matter, for The Sound And The Fury is compelling throughout: a stepping off point, you suspect, for Nerina Pallot Pt II. In how it debunks much of her previous methodology, it’s a triumph of courage and endeavour. In how it hungrily uncovers new sounds, unearths new (largely minimal) arrangements and looks at the world in, for Pallot, new and intriguing ways, it emerges as her most important album since her debut. No one does the cocktail dress/solo piano/cut glass vocals thing quite like her, but that’s just one facet of her increasingly rangy presentation and The Sound And The Fury takes gleeful, measured delight in hurling a molatov at your lazy preconceptions.