Credit: Holly Whitaker via Billboard

Review: Drunk Tank Pink by Shame

By Fred Bruce

On their sophomore album the South London outfit significantly deepen, mature, and ultimately improve their post-punk sound.

Never a nation to be outdone in terms of angst, British artists have been at the forefront of post-punk’s recent rejuvenation. Bands like IDLES, HMLTD, Fontaines D.C., and The Murder Capital (to name just a few) have been soundtracking our collective sense of impending doom, with a pool of darkly cathartic albums dropping over the last few years. A particularly revered project was 2018’s Songs of Praise, the tongue-in-cheek, full-length debut from gigging-veterans Shame. The South London natives’ take on the genre could have been celebrated for frontman Charlie Steen’s eclectic vocals alone, as he frantically stumbles between hysterical shouts on one track to genuine balladry on the next. But behind Steen’s grim poetics was a tightly layered guitar-band whose visceral and sticky, indie-rock sound was vital in delivering the outfit’s message of adolescent anger. Songs of Praise was a quality collection of dark alt-rock cuts that showcased Shame’s potential to create a heavier, more overwhelming sound in releases to come.

Three years later, Drunk Tank Pink fulfils that potential. The tight, focused concepts on Songs of Praise have festered and evolved into a far deeper and more sprawling album. There are moments on the album in which the band is almost unrecognisable, often being nearer in sound to Fugazi, or even Daughters, than their genre contemporaries. 

You might not realise that from the opening, however. Drunk Tank Pink is a masterclass in how to pace an album. The instrumentation on Alphabet and Nigel Hitter start the listener off in familiar territory, while Steen details his societal and performance anxieties with wild David Byrne-style vocal inflections. These songs are excellent but ultimately serve to ease listeners in rather than blast them with experimentation.

Born in Luton is an immediate standout in the tracklist: a sprawling multi-faceted monster that lurches from raucous, rhythm-led verses into slurred, droning choruses with little warning. Josh Finerty’s galloping bass that leads much of the track’s first minute is suddenly drowned by a wave of hypnotically dreary guitar chords and machine-gun drums. Steen’s vocals also vary dramatically – his manic poetry gives way to desperate cries of “I’ve been waiting outside for all of my life”, each line dragged out and steeped in wonderful angst. 

Similar to the album’s beginning, Drunk Tank Pink then reels back the apocalyptic sounds on March Day and Water in the Well. The dystopian vibe doesn’t disappear, of course, but it’s more of a lurking presence on these tracks than the main event like Born in Luton. Points like this on the tracklist feel like the record is biding its time – Drunk Tank Pink is a rollercoaster of sounds, with much-needed transitional phases building between immense sonic peaks. This isn’t to say these songs aren’t exhilarating, because they very much are, but they feel deliberately tighter and focused compared to some of the album’s wilder moments.

If Water in the Well positions the listener at the top of the rollercoaster, Snow Day plunges them headlong into the abyss below. Steen’s vocals run the gauntlet from passionless spoken word right to the most hysteric he has ever sounded. Snow Day is an incredibly ambitious undertaking that Shame rightfully proclaims as the best song they have ever written. The track is just over five minutes but crams in enough colossal ideas to fill an album. Not a moment is wasted, yet somehow none of the concepts feel rushed or impatient. There are spots in the runtime that could have been lifted from Daughters’ monumental You Won’t Get What You Want, and others equally reminiscent of Slint’s Spiderland. Shame draws clear influences from across the genre spectrum, and although it can be easy to get tangled in comparisons, it’s how they progress those ideas that make the album so intoxicating. Snow Day is staggering, to be blunt, and demonstrates the incredible leaps the band has taken over the last few years.

Human, for a Minute is possibly the best of the more subdued cuts across Drunk Tank Pink. The menacing bass and overall sleazy, slimy instrumentation create a claustrophobic stage for Steen’s intimate lyrics. The writing and delivery here are genuinely chilling, depicting the narrator’s frightening obsession with his lover-cum-victim. It’s a sinister track that maintains the album’s dystopian imagery under a different sonic aesthetic. 

In the context of the album, Human, for a Minute is a measured and necessary change of pace, leading perfectly into the incoming hattrick of Great Dog, 6/1, and Harsh Degrees. Taken apart, each of these are incredibly anthemic (if a little one-dimensional) post-punk songs, but together they snowball into an overpowering onslaught of cathartic energy. Great Dog is the shortest track on the album, bursting out with an immediate raucous pace and somehow ramping up from there. There are precious few seconds of breathing time between these songs and it makes for an amazing final stretch that eventually crescendoes in the appropriately titled Harsh Degrees. The song’s climax is a writhing mass of distorted guitars and noisy synths that merge into a phenomenally textured piece of noise-punk.

Drunk Tank Pink’s closer, Station Wagon, showcases everything that makes it great in just seven minutes. The first half of the song creates an uneasy calmness that ever-so-gradually builds into a titanic cacophony of hammered bass notes, dissonant piano chords, and unrelenting drums. On top of this Steen works himself up from stanzas of impeccable spoken word all the way into bellowed demands of “Won’t somebody please/Bring me that cloud”. A fading synthesiser-lead rounds the album out into an uncomfortable silence, as if at any moment the chaos could start back up again. You’re left holding your breath, reflecting on the 40-minute journey that took you there. 

To compare Drunk Tank Pink to Songs of Praise ultimately does both a disservice. Both achieve what they set out to with incredible success, but the former is an artistic statement several magnitudes grander. There remains little of the catchy adolescent rebellion that made up their debut, replaced instead with the soundtrack to a derelict post-apocalypse. At times a little derivative, and not without its weaker tracks, but as a cohesive vision Drunk Tank Pink is a momentous success. 

Top Track: Snow Day

Overall Rating: 8/10


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