For most of us, 2016 was a tumultuous and ugly year – one steeped in political chaos and an air of uncertainty. For Nadine Shah, these headlines had been a big part of her life for years, and Holiday Destination – her brilliant and compelling third album out on 1965 Records – sees her stepping out of the shadow of the complicated relationships she examined on her second album Fast Food and taking account of the world at large.
While Fast Food saw Shah refine her knack for knife-edge dramatics and personal empowerment, Holiday Destination finds her scrutinising some of the most hard-hitting subjects on every end of the scale: from global issues such as the Calais refugee crisis (‘Holiday Destination’), Syrian civil war (‘Mother Fighter’) and the terrifying rise of nationalism (‘Out The Way’), to the more personal problems of inner turmoil surrounding the pressure of social conforming (‘Ordinary’), the state of our mental health (‘Evil’) and simply encouraging others to have empathy (‘Place Like This’), Shah pulls no punches.
Yet Holiday Destination is anything but a difficult listen. From the opening static and propulsive guitar lines of ‘Place Like This’, it immediately becomes apparent that Shah and collaborator, co-writer and producer Ben Hillier’s knack for sharp hooks and taut rhythms has only progressed further, with a certain musical jubilation coursing through veins of the track. “We made a conscious choice to make the album more upbeat sonically,” Shah explains. “I love Billy Bragg, but I didn’t want to be Billy Bragg-political. I wanted to be Stevie Wonder political. I think one of the best political songs of all time is ‘Living for the City’ – I’ve been singing that and his other songs since I was a kid. But as you grow older, you realise that it’s more than just a sonically brilliant song – it holds a really powerful message.”
For Shah, the first ideas for Holiday Destination came back in 2014 when her filmmaker brother produced a documentary for Al Jazeera on a refugee camp in Gaziantep, between the Turkish and Syrian border, and she produced the music for it. “The issues there were already on my radar, but my brother going out there and me making music for his documentary really highlighted it,” she says. “Around the same time, I saw this really shocking news piece. It was about migrants and refugees turning up on the shores of Kos in Greece by the thousands. There were some holidaymakers being interviewed and they were talking about how ‘they’re really ruining our holiday’. The fact that they had no shame in saying that whilst being interviewed, on national television... it really shocked me. This is what I am seeing across the globe: people unashamedly saying these awful things. It's like, wow – people really don't care and they'll happily talk about how they don’t care. That’s why it's called Holiday Destination.”
The title track itself is a rousing call to arms – one of Shah’s most fervent and gut-wrenching songs to date. A fever-pitched post-punk anthem, Shah’s lyrics goad over krautrock-esque synths, unnerving guitars and taut saxophone by Pete Wareham: “how you gonna sleep tonight?” she cries in the chorus, taking aim at not only just those holidaymakers but also anyone else who takes an ignorant approach to the travesties happening on our doorstep and further afield. The same approach is taken on ‘Yes Men’, which features the album’s standout vocal performance and is a blunt and brutal take on the manipulation that takes place daily in the mainstream media.
While ‘Holiday Destination’ was the first track to be recorded, Shah’s time writing and recording in Hillier’s Agricultural Audio in Brighton during 2016 found the headlines continually affecting her. The crisis in Syria continued to escalate - ‘Mother Fighter’ is a huge, emotionally-charged anthem about a woman named Ragda who Nadine reached out to after seeing her in the documentary ‘A Syrian Love Story’. Shah has experienced the fallout from Syria first-hand – she played a show in Istanbul last year that proved particularly and devastatingly insightful. “The show was empty because the kids just don’t come out there anymore. Then, right out the front afterwards – four, five, six year olds – all out begging. The way a lot of them were treated was really bad. Turkey have had to take in a lot of refugees without any support whatsoever. It was just so harrowing”.
Holiday Destination may focus on Syria throughout, but as a whole, Shah says the album’s more politically-inclined songs are “more about borders. They’re about anybody in any place trying to flee conflict and make it to safety. Look at Yemen. Look at Eritrea. This is why the album cover – taken by a conflict journalist named Christian Stephen – is of Gaza. That way it doesn’t confuse the message of the album – the album isn’t purely about Syrians. I’m making an observation of all these awful things as a whole.”
At the same time, Shah was also in the midst of the same whirlwind as us all. On ‘2016’ – a jittery, highly danceable alt-pop track – Shah reflects on turning thirty and the struggle of dealing with your own personal turmoil when you’ve got the backdrop Brexit and Donald Trump. “When I was talking to my friends about all of these issues, some of them would say things like ‘oh, it really makes you look at your own life and realise how lucky you are and that all your problems are minuscule in comparison.’ That’s not how it should be – everyone has their own personal crises, all the time. You’re allowed to have empathy. You’re allowed to have your own bullshit going on.”
Shah is no stranger to personal crises, which she approaches assertively and bravely throughout Holiday Destination. She tackles the stigma of mental health on ‘Evil’, a song that finds Shah laying herself bare while also addressing the idea of what an outsider can mean – whether that be a refugee or someone who is stigmatised simply because of their mental illness. On ‘Out the Way’ - a terrific first single that is as biting and scathing in equal measure as any of her output – Shah grapples with the fact that as a second-generation immigrant, her identity is constantly brought into question, the song appropriately ricocheting with burning intensity as she contemplates the rise of global nationalism.
“So on this one trip to the States, I'm taken to the other side of the airport in this room where everyone in the room has brown skin - and they're all looking at me like 'what the fuck are you doing here?!’ I just made this joke, I just said - 'oh, I'm Pakistani.' And then everyone started to laugh. But it's just like - that's totally about a rise in nationalism that I'm seeing. It's completely terrifying. Even on Twitter I've had people telling me 'oh, go back to where you've come from' - and I'm like what? South Shields? It’s a proper identity crisis for me. I'm a second-generation immigrant - I was born in England, I'm very English - proper fucking English, mate! - but I'm also culturally Muslim."
The north of England – particularly Tyneside where Shah was born – holds a fond place in her heart, and the way it has been represented throughout Brexit is a cause that Shah is extremely passionate about. ‘Jolly Sailor’ – the album’s closing track – fittingly reins in on the wider world to focus on an issue right on Shah’s doorstep. It’s a beautiful finale to an album that approaches such complex subjects with articulacy and heart – a lavish, piano-led ballad named after one of Shah’s local pubs that breaks down into racing synths and rolling drums. “’Jolly Sailor’ ties into ‘Yes Men’ in many ways,” explains Shah. “After Brexit, the thing that I really hated the most was the things my mates were saying. ‘Oh, the north, they’re racists’ and other ludicrous things. But they’re not! They’ve been hoodwinked – the media have targeted and manipulated the working class and the north of England. I know my friends are smarter than this and this song is about all of that.”
Exhilarating, eye-opening and as beguiling as anything as she has done before, Holiday Destination is Nadine Shah laid bare, but not vulnerable. It is political without being preachy; thoughtful without being condescending. Whereas some artists may stumble in putting their agenda across, Nadine Shah does not falter – whether it’s the confidence exuded in the one-two punch of ‘2016’ and ‘Out the Way’, or the emotional and heartfelt vocal turns on ‘Mother Fighter’ and ‘Jolly Sailor’, this is Nadine using her exceptional voice to put her inner workings in perspective and the world’s problems on trial in one of 2017’s most crucial albums.