The Queen of Ordinary title will always go to Lily Allen, but Kate Nash is assuredly the Princess. The charm of both is in affecting the personas of everyday gals, no matter their own personal riches (both are from comfortable upper-middle-class backgrounds), whilst allowing the freakish un-ordinariness of their pop music to give those personas a massive emotional wallop. Each has been accused of being inauthentic, as if “authenticity” was in any way a sensible method to measure a pop star’s artistic success. But those of us who, upon their arrival in the late 2000s, thrilled to their Mockney accents, cavalcade of indelible tunes, and take-no-prisoners approach to lyrics (Allen called an early song “Fuck You”, Nash called one “Dickhead”), understood the persona-playing as simply a tongue-in-cheek flipping of the bird to the establishment. And it was easy to observe how that contrariness helped to elevate the thrill of their music.
That said, sales have declined, particularly for Nash. Maybe the shock of the new has worn off. In fact, Nash had to crowd-fund and self-release her last album, Girl Talk (2013), after Fiction Records got cold feet over the record’s “punky elements”. Indeed, that album was a bold move away from the piano-dominated pop songs of her early career, including “Foundations” which made her famous, into riot grrrl-influenced garage punk, complete with heavy guitars, drums and bass from an all-female band. It shed a lot of her fans, peaking at 85 on the UK charts where her debut had made number one, and critics were also confused (it scored a measly 63 on Metacritic). Yet this particular reviewer recalls it fondly, and having just played it again can confirm that it holds up rather well in the #MeToo era, as both feminist doctrine and audible proof that sisters can very well do it for themselves.
If only Yesterday Was Forever were so successful. Oh how we need an ordinary girl telling us exactly how it is right now. The album has no clear purpose, lyrically or musically, which would be acceptable only if she’d managed to come up with a series of indelible tunes. But she hasn’t, not this time.
There are moments that shine. In particular, her ongoing fascination with imitating the riot grrrl bands of the 90s, particularly Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, reaps rewards and shows that Girl Talk was not just a blip in her musical tastes. “Life in Pink” is a strong opener with a chorus that loudly gets in your face. And if the rest of the tracks lack genuine punk menace, on multiple occasions Nash’s band and her own guitar add meat to the bare bones of the pop hooks. So it is on “Take Away”, where some nifty guitar riffs help to flesh out a rather forgettable tune, and also help to draw attention to the pointed ordinariness of the lyrics: no rock band would ever be so overtly unpretentious as to sing “I want a take away with you/I don’t care if it’s Chinese food/We’ll get a side of Pepsi too/I want a take away/I want a take away”.
That ordinariness is Nash’s greatest charm. Yet on an album like Yesterday Was Forever, which contains equally ordinary music, it instead becomes a failing and leads quickly to boredom.
There are too many dreary moments. “Today” may be a nod to The Smashing Pumpkins’ hit or it may not, but at any rate its coy shuffle and “Hey, hey it’s alright” chorus fail to convince quite like that inspirational classic. “Musical Theatre” sets up hope that it will conjure up some of the showtunes-influenced grandeur of her early hits, yet the spoken word narrative of its first half and poorly sung mantras of its second half don’t jibe and make for a frustrating listening experience. And the album ends with a pair of clunkers: “My Little Alien”, a daft metaphor complete with sound effects that irritate no end, and “To the Music”, a decent beat with a dull chorus and trying-too-hard inspirational message attached.
The best moments are those that deal frankly with mental illness. “My bedroom is a mess but I just can’t clean it/Yeah, I’m hungry but I don’t even feel like eating” she describes in “Life in Pink”, casually capturing the crippling effects of depression. And in one disarming verse on “Today” she wishes that “Maybe today when I go out, it will feel different/And I won’t be scared at all/When a stranger sits too close to me, I won’t panic/I won’t feel my skin crawl”. It cuts close to the bone of social anxiety disorders. Real close.
If only the rest of the album were as piercing as these moments. But the slickness of its production can’t conceal a dearth of ideas, a lack of inspiration that holds it back from matching the giddy heights of Made of Bricks or Girl Talk.