“I’m pretty much the queen of awkward,” Aleksandra Denton told Hunger, at the moment her self-produced single Touch struck viral gold.
She went on to be longlisted for the BBC’s Sound of 2015, and has released a steady stream of singles since rather than rushing to record an album, playing the online hype machine by creating the single-serving www.hasshurafinishedheralbumyet.com.
Two years on, it’s a yes, and, while there are certainly hints of an awkward, vulnerable voice, Shura has every reason to be brimming with confidence. Nothing’s Real is a beautifully constructed debut.
This is obvious right from the icily cool opening title track, after the first of the strange, oneiric interludes punctuating the album. Hitting like Can’t Get You Out Of My Head retooled by Kraftwerk, it might be about winding up in hospital after a panic attack (“I see my heart beat inside a television screen”) but it comes over as a paean to escape – from the “cheap clock ticking over my head” – to salvation under disco lights, played out over breathy DX7 and lush, stirring Salsoul strings.
And it only gets better from there, with this year’s single What’s It Gonna Be? Proving that, post-Haim, the Tango In The Night template for pop de nos jours is still very much A Thing – see also the Mac-tastic Make It Up – it’s a headlong, heartbroken rush, all stuttering guitar and sparkling keys and pleading but defiant chorus. Touch follows, spare and funky with washes of analogue synth.
So far, so Now That’s What I Call Synthpop Nostalgia, you might think. And you’d be right, to a point. Nothing’s Real feels like a successor to (yup) 1989 or Carly Rae‘s unassailable Emotion, and like those albums this is no cut and paste job. The synths and drums might be plucked from Tomorrow’s World demonstrations, but it’s all part of a very consistent soundscape, the vision of its self-taught, self-producing creator.
There are some leftfield touches, too: those hallucinatory, ambient lulls, with samples from family home movies, lend a personal, melancholy air, while the broken teenage dreams of Kidz & Stuff (“I never thought that we’d break up/Thought we’d get married and have kids’n’stuff”) are wrapped in honeyed, gossamer dream-pop, more Robin Guthrie than Robyn.
Amid all the glistening, polished electronics there’s a real intimacy. Relationship problems might make up most of the stories, but there are small, telling touches indicating they come from a genuine place – the whisky drunk “from a plastic cup, as if it’s gonna make you make your mind up”, from the first lines of the clipped, minimal disco of Indecision, the walk “home down the Uxbridge Road” from 2Shy, or the canteen scene set by the reflective What Happened To Us? – “I sat next to you at lunch, you had your back turned, reading your magazine”.
Above all, it’s an album of happy-sad, late summer pop belters, from the laptop soft-rock of Tongue Tied – Toto keyboards, on-the-nose tom rolls and wispy backing vocals – to the twinkling, teary 2Shy, all leading to the thumping funk of the lengthy White Light, a Starman-like imagining of a romantic Close Encounter, sweeping towards the stratosphere on squelching bass before crashing down to earth with the hidden New Year 311215.
Going out as we came in, it’s the culmination of those hypnotic interludes, another home video playing as she seems to contemplate a future without family. The title might tell us Nothing’s Real – and all the artwork may suggest a collision between hyper-colourful life and the comic-book fantastical – yet it all seems very real for Shura. The sound might be ’80s, but this is undeniably now, and Shura a new star in 2016’s increasingly bible-black night.