My favourite story about 20-year-old Bea Kristi (AKA beabadoobee) isn’t how a sample of her sweet’n’lo-fi debut song – “Coffee” – has been heard over 10 billion times on TikTok. Nor is it the one about how Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus took his kids to see her perform a song she called “I wish I was Stephen Malkmus”. It’s the one in which a music journalist asked how the Philippines-born, London-bred musician spent her first professional paycheque and she said: “I bought a Francoise Hardy single on vinyl from Rough Trade and a cardigan”.
It’s an anecdote guaranteed to twang the nostalgia tendons of those who lived through the Nineties alt-rock scene. Chances are we’d have spent the money the same way back in the day – even if all our Hardy albums are now uploaded to the cloud and it looks like our kids are about to raid our wardrobes for “vintage” knitwear.
Friends have told me it’s slightly disorienting to hear such a young girl re-running the grungey guitar-baths of our youth in 2020. The enduring Eighties revival feels sustainable because that decade's defining electronica was driven by its futuristic ambitions. But the scuffed indie of the Nineties was an earthy, “authentic” reaction to that, which does tether it more earnestly to its era.
But grunge was a response to a culture that felt fake to many of us. There should be no surprise that it’s back to blow some angry feedback up the skirts of today’s fake news and face-changing app culture. And though it doesn’t deliver the promised 2020 twist on the Nineties formula, beabadoobee’s debut album is a terrific new addition to the “bubblegrunge” genre.
Fans of her early “bedroom pop” songs will already know that Kristi has a keen ear for a cute melody and a candyfloss voice that really kills when she swears. The scuzzed-up band sound gives a serrated edge to her natural sweetness and allows her to pour all her adolescent anger and confusion into songs such as “Care” (about childhood trauma), “Emo Song” (nailing a lying ex), and “Charlie Brown” (a self-harm confessional).
In interviews, Kristi has spoken about being a model student until the age of 11, when she began to struggle with her identity as an Asian immigrant. She started listening to Elliott Smith, Björk, Pavement and Slowdive on a Walkman, told her friends she was gay (although she now identifies as bisexual) and, by her mid teens, was taking drugs. After she was expelled from school, her father bought her a guitar and, within a year, she’d been signed to The 1975’s label, Dirty Hit.
Fans will be able to trace the whole story through a careful study of her lyrics. “Dye it Red” sees her taking a firm, feminist stance with, “F*** me, only when I’m keen/ Not according to your beer”, while “Sorry” finds her tapping into the masochism of “the dark place that I adore”. Both songs make effective use of Cobain-esque guitar technique in which chords slosh up and down the fretboard with sullen menace. There’s some pretty picking on “Back to Mars” (where Kristi adorably exchanges her interplanetary plans for a trip to the south of France) and big string arrangements swirling around the waltz beat of “Horen Sarrison”, a delicately smitten tribute to her boyfriend and collaborator Soren Harrison.
Just as listeners are starting to think Kristi’s as cuddly as the kitten videos uploaded to her “Coffee” sample, she makes a fart joke and launches into the shoegazey adventure of “Yoshimi, Forest, Magdalene”, which requires her to scythe her way through a dense rainforest of thrash guitar.
You hope, having honed the Nineties to frayed perfection, Kristi moves on and into fresh sonic pastures soon. But, for now, she’s earned the right to wear her retro cardigan with pride.
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