Friday, September 6, 2019

album review: 'forevher' by shura

This has been long overdue.

In fact, I think some of you might be surprised it's taken me this long to get to this album, especially given how much Shura won me over three years ago with Nothing's Real, a debut that came right the hell out of nowhere as one of the most promising slices of tight and immensely rewarding synthpop I've covered this decade. It was one of those rare cases where I had no idea what I was expecting, but given her tasteful update of retro-80s tones and a healthy amount of Janet Jackson worship, fused with terrific melodies, great subtle hooks, and truly remarkable writing delving into romantic intricacies, it's only grown more potent with every passing year.

And thus I was really looking forward to her follow-up... and yet I delayed with giving it a lot of listens. I was nervous how she'd follow it up, to be sure, but also because reportedly the sound had changed ever so slightly as well as dialing into the queer themes that had been moved from subtext to text this time around, and I was desperately praying the tightness had not been compromised in setting that vibe. Granted, the reception and critical acclaim has been potent so I had every reason to hope, but how about it: what did we get from Forevher?

So okay, I wanted to love this album - it's easily been one of my most anticipated projects of 2019, I think Shura is a tremendous talent, and her making an album full of liquid lesbian love ballads seemed like a recipe for easy success... which is why I'm a little dispirited to say this isn't quite as good as Nothing's Real. And what's exasperating is that in this case it mostly comes down to taste in tonal choice and flow, because the formula isn't really that different except for a few fine details - and yet those are the details that this time have left me a little cold; good, but not great.

Now again, if you've heard a Shura album before, the formula should be familiar: shimmering cascades of synth, watery guitar pickups, solid melodic grooves driven off prominent basslines, crisp percussion, and Shura's hushed but subtly emotive delivery cushioned with overdubs with a pickup close up to draw memories of Janet Jackson. All of this is exactly what I wanted to hear... but get a few songs in and you realize something seems a little 'off', specifically with regards to the synth palette that Shura is drawing upon and the choice of grooves and tempo she chooses to match it. They're slower, there's a little more funk or even swagger to the progressions that comes with leaning into this brand of sensuality... but this also leads to looser synth progressions that start to wash around the tighter grooves, not quite to the point where it feels slapdash but it doesn't help any sense of momentum. And while there's always a parallel to 80s sounds in a lot of synthpop, this album doesn't quite hit the sleeker but anthemic tones that made Nothing's Real sparkle so much, instead feeling closer to the sophistipop tones of the mid-to-late 80s, a bit more lounge-inspired to the point when the saxophone slides into 'BKLYNLDN', it's not even surprising! 

And I'll be very honest: I'm just not quite as fond of these tones as I was with Nothing's Real - they don't quite have the same tightness or groove, the swell on the hooks doesn't coalesce in the same way, I'm not really a fan of how some of the synthesizers constantly seem like they're slipping off-key, and I seriously question how often Shura brings in the autotune. Don't get me wrong, as a stylistic flourish it can work in spots - the robotic nature of 'skyline, be mine' with that sensuous bassline and spacey warp behind her is a great fit for that approach, but in looking at the opening song 'side effects' it feels more used to emphasize the break from the last album rather than accentuate the song. And while I get why the synths sliding off-key kind of works for 'religion (you can lay your hands on me)' - the flip towards a slightly 'off' aesthetic for that content that Shura herself described as trying to imitate a 70s French porn score - it doesn't quite match well with how measured the rest of the album is. And while there are other points I can nitpick - the ethereal transition on the back half of 'control' off the blaring synths doesn't quite click as effectively as it did on 'BKLYNLDN', the oddly clipped nature of the ending of both 'tommy' and 'princess leia' makes sense within the content but could have both used the fadeout, I kept getting a stark Elton John vibe on 'flyin' with that piano line - I am naming some of my favourite moments and songs here, especially with how the low-key hook on 'tommy' really shines, or how the brass is such a great touch on 'princess leia'! I guess I was just hoping for a bit more momentum, that's all.

Then we have the lyrics... honestly, not a lot to say here, as Shura has shifted more into writing finely detailed songs focused on a long-distance lesbian relationship. And let's not mince words, while they are very much not for me, I can appreciate the tenderness in fleeting communication, the hesitation and surprise to meet in person, her own musings at the absurdity of seeing love stretch on forever but then embrace it, and she's not afraid to take potshots at religion who would judge her but can embrace elements just as absurd. The biggest running metaphor, through, is her very real fear of flying, both highlighting the distance from her girlfriend, the losses she's seen traversing that distance, and how it's giving up control of her safety in a big way. It's one reason why 'control' works - her mom told her to focus on her girlfriend possibly flying the plane, but Shura knew her girlfriend doesn't have a pilot's license and thus nobody knows what they're doing... but it still was a little relaxing in the end. But what I appreciate is how this album focuses on that distance and the travel taken to pass it - it's lighthearted in embracing the little ridiculousness of it all, but it often proves worth it; hell, it's one reason why 'tommy' punches as hard as it does, telling the story of an old widower who meets with a widow who was once his high school sweetheart, and then is met in his dreams by his late wife who encourages him to make that trip and move on, find a bit of happiness while he still can. And really, for Shura travelling across America to meet her love... well, she can see the parallel and making it worth her while.

So in short, I like this album. I don't quite love it - again, some of the tones don't quite coalesce for me - but that's a matter of taste and someone who's not quite as nitpicky as me will probably have a great time time with this. I absolutely think for Shura's target audience this'll go over very well, and that's encouraging for her, and while for me I'm giving it a strong 7/10, I absolutely recommend it all the same. Yes, I know I'm very late to this review, but this is still good stuff - check it out!

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