Published Jan 11, 2021In the world of Shame's Drunk Tank Pink, perception is everything.
Opener "Alphabet" kicks off with rattling snare and lurching rhythms from drummer Charlie Forbes and bassist Josh Finerty. Guitarists Sean Coyle-Smith and Eddie Green pepper the empty space with scattershot sustain and siren wail leads. Grinding against this hypnotic lockstep, Charlie Steen shouts out sardonic observations drawn from urban anthropology. The frontman sounds like he's walking the midnight streets of South London, perturbed by every empty lot, gentrified pub and decrepit nook and cranny of corporeal existence. Eventually, the track's chorus gets to the core of Steen's innermost anxieties — "Are you waiting to feel good? / Are you praying like you should?" It's a catchy line that ultimately serves to mask the darkness underneath; Steen might not be alone, but he feels like he is.
Following their debut LP, 2018's exceptional Songs of Praise, Shame were one of Britain's most hyped bands when the members were barely in their twenties. The group's snotty post-punk brand, coupled with Steen's withering social commentary and laconic delivery, garnered them critical acclaim. While their first album was the perfect platform for pent-up frustrations and post-adolescent rage, it's clear that their follow-up effort is the product of onset adulthood. Drawing its title from a book by Adam Alter, Drunk Tank Pink interrogates how our environment unconsciously shapes our perceptions, conditions our judgments and informs our idea of selfhood. For Steen and his bandmates, it's an album that wrestles with the pressure of performance, reflecting on how life on the road impacts your ability to enjoy life at home.
Drunk Tank Pink manifests these anxieties through an instrumental identity crisis, adding shades of '80s pop and funk to otherwise angular post-punk soundscapes. There's an upbeat immediacy to "Nigel Hitter" that sounds like Talking Heads in their prime. "Born in Luton" bristles with alternate guitar tunings and pedal effects; this use of sonic overload contrasts with Steen's sense of confusion and despair at the dissolution of his relationships — "I've been waiting outside for all of my life / And now I've got to the door, there's no one inside / When are you coming back? / When are you coming home?"
Thankfully, it's not all doom and gloom. The album's mid-section brings back the cheeky grins and pub-band charisma that dominated the band's debut. Single "Water in the Well" makes the most of jagged riffs and Steen's effortless street-corner swagger. On the Arctic Monkeys-aping "March Day," the vocalist references "the womb" — a hidden room in Steen and Coyle-Smith's shared living space in South, East London, painted in the shade of pink used to calm down drunk tank inmates — as the only place where he can calm his mind and put the album's themes into action.
While the constant need for creative freedom and instrumental variety means that Drunk Tank Pink begins to meander towards the record's back end, a handful of sprawling epics showcase Shame's enviable talent for vivid storytelling. The expansive "Snow Day" pushes and pulls with the band's propulsive instrumentation and Steen's gritted-teeth recitations. Meanwhile, wistful album closer "Station Wagon" constructs a towering crescendo that allows Steen's poetic lyrics to let the light in. And here, just for the briefest of moments, he almost sounds content, "Happiness is only a habit / And if that's true, then I'm habitually dependent on something that I cannot control / Something I cannot touch, taste, or tamper with / But no one said this was going to be easy." (Dead Oceans)