By Zhenzhen Yu
You can’t throw a rock in the current cohort of post-punk without hitting some mention of Shame. To start, Fontaines D.C., tongue-in-cheek, referenced this ubiquity on a press tour (“We would get called post-punk and thrown in with this group of bands. It’s always us, Idles and Shame"); Protomartyr and Fat White Family have had them on as openers ("I was worried about having to leave Shame, and then I realized I have shame every day of my life," Joe Casey quipped after their set at the Teragram); and Shame themselves often offer to start intra-genre rivalries (“We’re going to organise some online beef with Sleaford Mods because both our albums are coming out the same day,” Steen deadpanned to the Independent). All-in-all, it’s not hard to see how they’ve cemented this kind of attention, despite their relative newness to the scene. Shame form the perfect mix for their current position on the UK Albums charts: they’re young enough boys that there’s a sort of bygone ’00s indie rock excitement, and the music itself is close enough to indie rock that it’s likely to get casual indie listeners interested.
On their sophomore effort, Drunk Tank Pink, Shame play that aforementioned fast and loose connection to indie rock — Built to Spill’s boyish agitation spills out, as well as a more ’00s niche, post-hardcore sound like Pink & Brown and Q & Not U — and go in a far different direction. There’s clearly an attempt at evolving past the sophomore slump, as Steen rather amusedly compares the catalyst for the change in the NME soundbite, “I’m sure The Jesus and Mary Chain heard feedback once and were like, ‘OK, sweet!'”
The final product, though not a poor album by any means, doesn’t always remain cogent to one theme, however, and seems to meander under its own weight. There’s an interesting, distinctly mathier tinge to the instrumentals — at risk of sounding like every Black Country, New Road review, I will say that “Snow Day” opens with some pretty expressly Slint-esque riffery — but the tracklist as a whole still loses some of its dynamo. “Alphabet,” for example, is a pretty decent opening track, and will clearly be the staple opener on a setlist (as soon as shows come into existence again), but it doesn’t quite warrant the same anticipatory confidence and excitement as “Dust on Trial.” And while I defend the co-opting of Mark E. Smith’s talk-singing style, for once, it doesn't quite add anything to the album’s instrumentals, and at times, opposes the music in a way that doesn’t mesh well. Additionally, there’s nary any pop streamlining (such as 2018’s instant classic “One Rizla”) either, which isn’t necessarily a bad direction to go in, but leads to some strange and directionless art punk cuts, instead of polished noise rock monoliths. As expected with such a self-admittedly haphazard collection, there’s also a wide array of tracks that don’t flow in one direction as they did on the debut, like uncharacteristic punk whirlwind “Great Dog” and sudden slow-burner “Station Wagon.”
Generally, this is not to say that Drunk Tank Pink is a weak album; it’s a genuine attempt at evolution and greatness, and there’s enough scattered quality here to maintain something worthwhile. In particular, the B-side manages to pick up the pace. For example, the acerbic art punk stylizations return on “Water in the Well” with some fairly excellent memories. Furthermore, “Human, for a Minute” has some excellent lyrics, and is where Steen most brightly shines with his talented vocals, affecting a slinky drawl as he drones out the refrain, “I’m half the man I should be. And he really can enunciate, too, utilizing his voice as an instrument with which to project a variance of emotions that go beyond the shouty straightforwardness of post-punk’s attempts at masculine subversion; in contrast, he just sounds effortlessly admirable. While he can bark on “Great Dog” with a sharp, crooked-smiled play-derision, “Human, for a Minute” plods out a truly gentle and mature elegy.
If anything, the album’s strengths and ambition all come to fruition in “Snow Day.” Shame themselves admit that it’s the best song they’ve ever written, and it doesn’t take too long to see why. Every element comes crashing open on this track, in the spiral of a gorgeous and unusually intricate cataclysm. Over the interplay of bleak guitars, Steen calls: “I live deep inside myself — just like everyone else.” It’s a wonderful journey of a track, invoking the sprawling, truly blizzard-invoking downpour of the guitar’s cascade. The two-tone register of Steen’s voice is even more audibly remarkable here, and plays to his maturity as a vocalist — he can invoke both the teenage drawl of “And I’m not looking for anything, really,” and immediately shift his call into something bitingly earnest, bitingly plaintive. The song plays to everything the band is capable of: It’s expressly, perfectly formed; it’s boyish and it’s new, while still refining its influences, and remaining as endlessly complex as the rest of the record tries to be. And it’s a look at what Drunk Tank Pink almost is — a sprawling, beautiful, but coyly abrasive picture of isolation.
Make sure to keep up to date with Shame (view their socials below) and give Drunk Tank Pink a listen on any of your favorite streaming platforms.