In her five-year career, Nadine Shah has established herself as one of music’s most gifted singer-songwriters. Her debut album, Love Your Dum and Mad, was a hard-charging, intelligent introduction. She followed that up with the more purposeful and brooding, Fast Food. Each record astutely conveyed hidden meanings, as Shah took the listener on a roller coaster ride full of unexpected turns and emotions. Her latest album, Holiday Destination, is more straightforward in its message, but it is Shah’s greatest work to date.
Holiday Destination is a political statement of the highest order, parallel to some of the great protest and social movement albums written since the Vietnam War. The LP centers around three major themes. Inclusion is the first subject, where Shah addresses everything from refugees, racism, and hate. The opener, “Place Like This”, rolls out the welcome mat to the tens of millions of people who have been displaced from their homes due to war, violence, persecution, or poverty. The groovy, Caribbean-inspired melody creates a surprisingly celebratory mood, but the song’s last words are the most important. “Refugees are welcome here”, holler a chorus of voices over top a parade-like drum line.
The title track, though, is Shah unleashed. This earth-shaking, brooding rocker is akin to PJ Harvey’s work of the past decade, particularly on Let England Shake. It methodically builds with just the strategic placement of the trumpet interrupting the pace. Shah, meanwhile, questions how citizens of the West can continue to be ignorant about the conditions and struggles of refugees while being another obstacle.
Heavy handed to empty handed,
Empty gestures in disguise.
Higher wall to the just landed.
Higher costs for better lives.
At the apex of this theme is the epic rocker, “Out the Way”. Shah’s vocals are heavy and intense, as she challenges society’s practices regarding inclusion, diversity, and identity. The assertiveness in her voice is captivating, grabbing hold of you like an enchantress standing before you and casting a spell. The orchestration is marvelously executed, from the tribal-like percussion to the jagged saxophone of Pete Wareham. There’s nothing delicate or taut in this song – this is Shah at her fiercest.
The stirring “Mother Fighter”, meanwhile, is Shah at her most endearing. Through the heart-racing, percussion-driven melody, Shah shares the story of a woman who lets her child go so that she may find a safer and better life. It is a fate that far too many people experience each day, and Shah beautifully and emotionally describes it in the following verses.
“Listen to me,
These streets they are yours and they’re mine.
You’re not staying with me.
I can’t promise all will be fine.
When you’re grown,
You’ll no longer have to ask why.
Just come back home
When land is as calm as the sky.”
Why such instability exists represents the album’s second central focus, as Shah sets her sights on the governing elite. As the dissonant guitar pierces through the crawling tempo of the gripping and brooding rocker, “Yes Men”, Shah’s agitated vocals describes the world where a dictator rules and freedom is but a forgotten dream. Irrationality and fear guide his decisions, and hate, violence, and conflicts are the outcome.
A state depended on yes men,
And there’s no way, man
You could ever tell them
What’s a worthy man?
He gives the best he can.
He doesn’t bank his favours for rainy days.
See him sliding on
On the back of every blood, sweat, and tear.
See the headlines he wrote
Playing to our fears.
Shah, herself, however, isn’t immune to what is going around her, which represents the album’s third central plot line. The gritty but immensely cool “2016” has Shah reflecting on her thirty years on the planet and how everything has changed within and around her. She’s more broody, our idols were taken away too early, a “fascist is in the White House”, and the world’s “temperature is rising”. On the tantalizingly dark and probing “Relief”, Shah continues the introspective examination and her own isolation from the everything happening around her. “And the computer screen is poking fun at me“, she croons with a smokey delivery.
It is on “Evil”, though, where Shah takes a stand. Brilliantly delivered and written, the song celebrates all those who are willing to take a stand against tyranny and hate. It is the anthem for every person who is willing to fight for the greater good instead of perpetuating lies and creating divisions between people. Shah’s songwriting on the track is brilliant, and she wears the term “evil” as a badge of honor.
“Look, I’m standing right here before you.
I can only offer what I’ve been taught,
And you look on with eyes from another,
How can I compete with an ingrained thought?
And tell your followers that I’m crazy
If it stops them questioning anymore.”
No one, though, will be questioning Shah’s importance as an artist and activist. With Holiday Destination, she has made a massive statement and delivered her finest album to date. The record is not just perfectly timed, but it is also one that will remain relevant for a very long time. It is a reminder of our own weaknesses as individuals and the fragility of an entire society. It is an album that should never be forgotten because the lessons shared are ones that must be told for years to come. As such, ten years from now we will look back at Holiday Destination as one of the decade’s most important albums.
Shah will perform at a few festivals in Europe from now until the end of September. Whe will commence a UK-only headlining tour in October. Dates and additional information can be found here.
Featured photo by Anna Victoria Best
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