“Another blow to the ego/ A victim of conditional love.” Being dumped by Sony in 2017 hit Laura Mvula with the emotional force of a romantic breakup. Her first two albums (Sing to the Moon, 2013 and The Dreaming Room, 2017) had been such a hit with critics – admired by stars such as Prince and Nile Rodgers – she’d begun to feel like she could “walk on water”. But then came the seven-line email ending her contract. Four years later, “the sting is still there”, she told The Independent in a recent interview.
It’s a story that clued-up fans will be able to track throughout the lyrics of her defiant third album, Pink Noise, released by her new label, Atlantic. The anxiety-prone artist’s lines are full of tears and fears of losing herself. But music has always been Mvula’s superpower. She has the discipline of a woman who “slogged through” all eight grades on violin and piano, and who had the grit to stand on stage solo after the Sony split left her unable to pay a band. Here, she wields an expert arsenal of drum pads, funk bass, grinding synths and her own superbly square-jawed vocal punch, smacking down the self-doubts that pop up in her path.
I had to look it up, but “pink noise” turns out to be like white noise: reassuringly solid only with more power in the bass. That fits. For the less scientifically inclined, the phrase conjures the blinking neon fizz of the 1980s; Mvula channels some of the decade’s quirkier, hot pink tangs. There are echoes of Joan Armatrading, Phil Collins, Kate Bush, Billy Ocean, and Jon and Vangelis. And Prince, of course, whose “Purple Rain” gets a name check.
As ever, Mvula’s songs drift like dreams, with abrupt shifts of mood. The gorgeous “Golden Ashes” begins with shimmer-sweet vocals and a soft pulse before the singer finds a “wolf-cry” and a military drum beat. “Conditional” – with its “blow to the ego” lines – finds her changing gear from the driving synths of the verse to strange spaces of layered vocals and the major-chord power ballad blast of the inspirational chorus.
The catchier “Church Girl” sees Mvula dancing between the sugar-gospel bop of early Whitney Houston, soft rock and something tougher as she demands: “How can you dance with the devil on your back?” Strong-mindedness and danceability are equally balanced on “Remedy”, as she takes on the “dangerous humans” controlling our lives. Jazz squiggles of keyboards boogie through the slow groove of “Magical”. Occasionally, the meandering nature of Mvula’s song structures can leave you grasping for more melody, but the moods she creates are always clearly defined.
Mvula’s first project after 2017 was scoring an RSC production of Antony and Cleopatra. There, she found a regal strength in the bright gold of brass. Although the brass is dialled down a little here, it’s not forgotten. Neither is Mvula’s queenly integrity. You can hear her thinking, like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra: “I will not be triumphed over!” And you can’t help hoping with her that this album sells in a way that leaves Sony’s execs looking “very green in judgement”.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies