There’s a rumour doing the rounds that CocknBullKid has lost her edge. Adulthood, the debut album from Anita Blay’s electro-popping alter ego, is definitely at a sharp tangent from earlier singles. Yet it also seems like the realisation of exactly what she always planned to do, with the feel-good allure to go with it, and that makes her as exciting as ever.
Back in 2009, as TheCocknBullKid, Blay was sporting an extra definite article – and was being touted as the very same. After a Hackney-based adolescence listening to Morrissey and The Cure while spawning as assortment of bedroom-based keyboard twiddles, she had emerged in the late noughties with a brace of hits that ushered her swiftly into the spotlight, onto Later… with Jools Holland and a slew of festival dates. This earlier character sported sassy, lo-fi electronics and a brassy, east-London attitude while those tracks, On My Own Again, a decidedly 8-bit farewell to a no-hoper lover, and I’m Not Sorry, which was as unrepentant in its themes of cold relationship home-truths as in its sleazy mash of new wave and disco beats, were both catchy and clever and hid innate pop sensibilities in layers of stuttering, dirgy synth.
All that is the classic mix for high hopes and dashed expectations. After nearly two years of teasing near-silence, the now moniker-shortened CocknBullKid has produced an album that seems shorn of all the traits that defined her. For chunks of the album, from the saccharine Yellow, to the empty harmonies of Distractions, Blay drifts in an out of a bland, girl-band pop that seems lyrically and melodically vacuous. The latter is an almost perfect homage to All Saints‘ Pure Shores (or, pretty much anything they did) and what little evidence still exists of her earlier new wave dalliances is lost deep in the mix.
Not surprising, perhaps, as Shaznay Lewis is one member of a co-writing cabal that’s been foisted on CocknBullKid during Adulthood’s long gestation (others including Joseph Mount of Metronomy and Peter Moren, of Peter, Bjorn and John fame). And thus, the rumour goes, has Blay lost her identity under pressure to conform from the commercially-minded major record label to which she is signed.
And yet, underneath an undeniably polished production, Adulthood seems too genuine for that: comfortable in its own softly-pop skin, but still harbouring the sardonic, insouciant heart of Blay’s early output. She still muses intelligently on relationships, such as with the honest vignette of the Alicia Keys-esque title-track: “My father turned my mother into everything he hated / And my mother turned my father into every guy I dated.” And her new sweetness is deftly tinged with lingering insecurities, laid bare in first single Hold On To Your Misery, where a gospel chorus seems to relish her inner turmoil with a Pentecostal, hand-clapping glee. This is all too sure-footed for a girl bowled over by the bright lights – it’s too assured not to be deliberate.
In fact, CockNBullKid has always been about pop. Blay’s always rejected the idea that being black, or from east London, meant being “urban”, and if early singles felt DIY, that’s probably more because of practical constraints rather than design. Adulthood’s pop is a tighter genre-fit than either of those, and while it does lack the indie edginess of her previous output, it recovers its losses with a deft feel for a good hook, catchy, ear-friendly choruses and a neat infusion of underplayed attitude.
CockNBullKid’s debut proper will still disappoint many of the early admirers, but it’s no accident – she’s loving the new direction, and there’s enough signs here to suggest that others will too.