Emerging with more vitality than ever after a messy breakup with her previous label, Laura Mvula’s first album under Atlantic, ‘Pink Noise’ tells a story of reinvention and jubilance amidst great personal hardship.
Pink Noise’s first point of contact is a deep, Phil Collins-esque drum beat in “Safe Passage.” Twinkling synths and uncannily 80’s backing vocals from Oli Rockberger land the listener firmly within the atmosphere of something like the score for a John Hughes film (evokes heavy “mullet and varsity jacket” imagery, if you’re smelling what I’m stepping in). Oozing with a sense of nostalgia but also a more forward-facing hope, it celebrates the agency we have to get to where we want in life with a gentle zeal.
Coming off the more wistful sound of “Safe Passage,” “Conditional” peeks forth with a more contemporary sound. Phased vocals, an eerily steady high note, and a skulking, predatory beat carries a darker tone for what Laura herself considers her most far-left production to date. The verses march forward with an unrelenting staccato that eventually open to a triumphant synth flourish at the chorus in parallel with the lyrics. A song about breaking free from the doldrums of being caught up with someone who doesn’t quite see you for who you are, she cites Kanye West as a particular inspiration for the production
“Church Girl” harkens back to some serious Whitney Houston influence, all the way through to the attitude that permeates the track. Lively percussion sounds towards the beginning taper into a gentle and introspective chorus that calls into question how we can think to be an authentic version of ourselves with the weight of such banal and trivial expectations on our shoulders (or backs, if you will). The layered vocals towards the end give off a symphonic vibe, performing in a sort of round that conveys itself as more rhythmic than strictly melodic.
Occupying the same tone as “Conditional”, but with slightly less of an edge production-wise, “Remedy” supplants all of the gravitas instead in the lyrics themselves, summoning Rhythm Nation-era Janet Jackson stylings to call the listener to action regarding systemic racism and the continuous arbitrary subjugation of people of colour (“Render me ‘dangerous human’ in your eyes/Suck out the air inside me and still I rise/You surround me with guns at every turn/See the system is rigged to shoot me first”). Rockberger’s additional vocals supply detail that amounts to a sort of inner voice angle, which is yet another profound choice to highlight any potential dissonance among fence-sitters or otherwise ambivalent parties.
Flowing quite smoothly into the next spot is “Magical,” a title which frankly hits the nail on the head. Explosive drums and spanky guitar licks feel like I’m climbing marble stairs to Nile Rodgers’ space palace. And yet, nothing feels gaudy or overblown. Between the mixing and the general pacing of the track overall, it feels as though Mvula is guiding us through this period of nostalgic bliss. She even sneaks in a key change in the middle of the third pre-chorus to drive that sense of sheer euphoria home before dropping most of the percussion on the front end and letting the audience drift into the technicolour expanses of the universe she’s created.
“Pink Noise” is, by far, the most fun song on the album. You know what? Go ahead and add a ‘k’ to that. I’m talking “leg drop your grandma” funk. If this bounced any harder we’d have to charge her for property damage. Synth stabs in between the upbeats add yet another layer of swing to where it brings into question if you’ve died and not known it, should this not make you want to move. The track skates effortlessly between being instrumentally dense and sparse where need be, allowing Mvula’s timbre to resonate with the bass tone brilliantly.
“What Matters” comes as a balmy, swaying anthem featuring Simon Neil from the band Biffy Clyro. Gentle synth chords mingle with a plucky guitar lead and energetic arpeggios further down in the mix to evoke the imagery of a prom at its most ideal. A warm spring night, dim neon lights, someone you may or may not care deeply for. BIG hair. Come the outro, Mvula and Neil’s voices effervesce against the fading instrumentation until they’re the only thing you can hear, adding to the album’s general theme of triumph while providing a more gentle landing.
However toiled her career has proven to be over the past few years, Mvula finds the strength to spring forth, while still taking the necessary time to give grace to her past and what troubles her.