Looking to maintain their title as Most Exciting Band in Britain, Shame return with their second album Drunk Tank Pink: an exhilarating, and at times frightening, insight into the impact of early success and incessant touring on a band’s mental state.
Shame are without a doubt one of the defining bands of the past decade, having completely reinvigorated British music with their politically charged, feisty post-punk when they burst onto the scene as rowdy teenagers seven years ago. Few present-day bands can garner the sheer amount of attention and buzz that Shame do – ask anyone who is mildly interested in guitar music, and they will likely name the London quintet as one of their main inspirations.
2018’s Songs of Praise was the work of a band who had grown up amongst the hustle and bustle of the South London scene. Fine-tuning their sound at the infamous Queen’s Head pub in Brixton under the guidance of Fat White Family and in the company of HMLTD and Goat Girl, all eyes were on Shame from the early days of their musical career. Their debut was hotly anticipated and critically acclaimed, catapulting the band into the wider public consciousness and establishing their reputation as one of the most vital leaders of the post-punk revival.
A hard act to follow, especially as Shame were only just out of adolescence at the time. They have been particularly cryptic about a second album for the past year or so, repeatedly teasing fans on Twitter until eventually revealing the name and date of its release in November to much excitement from their dedicated fan base.
Like a snake shedding its skin, Drunk Tank Pink sees Shame shake themselves off and strive for newness. Opening with the dark simplicity of ‘Alphabet’ before launching into the Squid-inspired ‘Nigel Hitter’, the album takes the listener through a jagged and twisting labyrinth of post-punk and art-rock, tripping them up on complex rhythms and leaving them gasping for air during all-encompassing guitar wig-outs. In fact, so much ground is covered on Drunk Tank Pink that it is astonishing to remember that this is the product of just two years’ work.
The difference between Songs of Praise and Drunk Tank Pink is like that between a fretful teenager and a world-weary adult: one shouts to the listener while the other confides in them, one deals with the external world while the other addresses the interior. On ‘Human For A Minute’, vocalist Charlie Steen battles with his own personal demons, confessing, “I don’t feel that I deserve to feel human for an hour/ or even for a minute/ when I’m crying with the saints / and I’m laughing with the sinners.”‘6/1’, meanwhile, sees him admitting that “I hate myself/ But I love myself”. For this reason, Drunk Tank Pink feels deeply personal: like a therapist’s notes on a patient’s psyche, the album explores the inner turmoil faced by the band during the making of each song.
It’s no surprise that the album comes across in this way. As Steen discusses in ‘Snow Day’ (“I live deep within myself/ just like everyone else”), Shame’s focus has turned inwards in more ways than one since making Song of Praise, and the time that has elapsed since then has given the band a valuable chance to take stock. The name of the album is taken from the colour painted to help drunk tank inmates sober up — the irony being that much of the early writing stages were spent in a room in Charlie Steen and guitarist Sean Coyle-Smith’s flat decorated with the exact same hue. A perfect metaphor for this body of work, really: leaving their days of drunken chaos behind them in the green room of the now gentrified Queen’s Head, Shame have grown up, reinventing themselves as complex, disillusioned adults.
But, if some of the tracks on Drunk Tank Pink are striking in their sobriety, this is by no means a straight-edge record. The Black Midi-esque ‘Water In The Well’, for instance, boasts dizzying, Talking Heads-inspired rhythms, while the fast-paced ‘Great Dog’ conjures up images of swirling, sweaty mosh pits. The overlapping textures and themes on Drunk Tank Pink ensure that it has a certain nervous energy running throughout it, like a fuse that could burst at any moment. The album ends with the surreal ‘Station Wagon’, a song both brimming with intensity and dripping in irony. And, just like that, the odyssey is over: the electrifying tour through the minds of Shame comes to an end.
The triumph of Drunk Tank Pink, therefore, is that it displays Shame at their most vulnerable and honest on tracks such as ‘Snow Day’, while also containing some of their most carefree and experimental material to date. And, as a commentary on isolation and mental disintegration, this album could not be any more prevalent right now. At a time when a whole generation of young people are struggling with the effects of the pandemic on their mental health and coming to terms with the realities of adulthood, Drunk Tank Pink grapples with these anxieties, providing a suitably disjointed soundtrack to the precariousness of the modern world.
Make no mistake, this album solidifies Shame’s position as pioneers within 21st century post-punk, proving that a band can evolve and mature without losing a single ounce of their edge.
Drunk Tank Pink by Shame is out Friday 15th January on Dead Oceans and you can buy or stream it here