If it weren’t for a panic attack, the title track of Shura’s debut full-length album, Nothing’s Real (out today), wouldn’t have been written. In a recent interview with The Fader, the British musician said she was inspired to write "Nothing’s Real" — a synthy, "Like a Prayer"-ish dance track — after going to the hospital one night for chest pains. "I was scared — I was genuinely scared," she said. "I had an insight into how I might react if I was actually on my way out, and it was super, super lonely."
Suffocate loneliness with comfort
Listening to Nothing’s Real, you get the sense that Shura (real name: Aleksandra Denton) is trying to negate this loneliness by creating something comforting. Because that’s what you do when the world feels dangerous, when you realize your body — the thing you’ve lived with your entire life — is capable of betraying you. Comfort here means nostalgia: dancefloor synths from prom night, a song that triggers a memory. Take "Touch," one of Shura’s earliest singles. With its jangly keyboard and muted, thudding percussion, it reminds me of another track: "The Screams of Passion" by The Family, an ‘80s band formed out of the ashes of Morris Day and the Time. Played back-to-back, the two songs almost melt together.
Even the first time you hear it, Nothing’s Real will already sound familiar, because it borrows from the past, and from songs that have already been written. That’s not a knock on the music; these references feel like an attempt at dissecting a decade Shura didn’t experience first-hand (she was born in 1992). "What Happened to Us" sounds like Fleetwood Mac started a cover band with Annie Lennox. "Tongue Tied" recalls a Black Box song, with quick, clattering percussion and vocals that see-saw from flirtatious to nervous. "What’s it Gonna Be?," a shivering love song, sounds like it could soundtrack a montage from a John Hughes movie. (Even its video feels like a Pretty in Pink homage.)
But familiar and nostalgic can clash with comfort, because looking back doesn’t always feel good. Nothing’s Real might look to the past for guidance, but it often finds pain there. Many of the lyrics are questions, making the album feel like it’s lost somewhere, not quite sure which direction to go in. On "What Happened to Us?," a song that torturously chronicles the end of a relationship, Shura sings, "Tell me how come I still feel so messed up." On "Kidz ‘N’ Stuff," she asks, "How can I not be everything that you need?" There’s a real sense of indignity and sometimes even humiliation on Nothing’s Real. Although the songs themselves sound like they’re made for other people to share, the lyrics are deeply internal, isolated by the idea that relationships can break down at any moment.
Nothing's Real manages to feel like a safe space
And yet, Nothing’s Real still manages to feel like a safe space. Sometimes in popular culture, things that are comfortable are derided for being simple or low-brow. "Difficult" becomes a synonym for "stimulating," which in turn means "more valuable." Baking competitions and reality shows, the argument goes, are no intellectual match for prestige TV. Pop albums don’t have the same artistic curiosity as a 22-track noise album. But on Nothing’s Real, Shura has found a way to make comfort-listening not only nice, but necessary. There’s not really a new idea here — just a calculated sense of comfort offering itself up against the inexplicable chaos of reality.