Lonelady - Nerve Up (Warp)
This album ticks so many hipster boxes that I ought really to despise it. There’s the moody, enigmatic monochrome cover shot. It’s one of Warp records’ increasingly frequent ventures outside the world of intelligent electronica. The musical reference points are specific and fashionable – a bit of wiry Gang of Four scratchy guitar, the jangle of early REM or the skeletal funk of ESG. Julie Campbell is from Manchester – the sound of the Factory era clearly also still resonates with her. Surely, ‘Nerve Up’ is simply traversing old, very familiar ground?
Beneath the surface though, there’s actually something a little out of the ordinary about ‘Nerve Up’. Perhaps it’s that Julie Campbell has had the audacity to cherry pick from all these influences, rather than focusing too tightly on a tired punk-funk agenda. More significantly, it’s that the music, thanks in part to Campbell’s songwriting, mostly rises above mere facsimile. It is taut and exciting – with a nervous itchiness of its own.
It’s rare to find a female solo artist that sounds so solitary and alienated. Usually, we get the sensual, idiosyncratic, fantastic personalities of the likes of Kate Bush, Bjork, PJ Harvey or Joanna Newsom. Lonelady does not belong in that world. Her voice is strange, slippery and beguiling. Her music is precise, rigid and austere rather than flighty and wild.
It’s odd that the twitchy, anxious outsider position that Campbell has assumed became such a male pursuit. One of the most exciting things about Nerve Up is hearing Campbell’s distinctive thin but intoxicating voice set against this resolute, propulsive music. The Byrdsian twang of ‘Immaterial’ might hint back at Murmur-era REM, but Campbell’s voice also adds a fairytale sense of mystery and enchantment.
Everything here is minimal, perhaps even slightly desolate. There’s scratchy guitar, a drum machine and Campbell’s voice. The title track particularly succeeds in building a detailed impression with a rigorous approach. There are very few constituent elements. What further overdubs there are always serve the tense, nervous mood. On tracks like ‘Army’ and ‘Intuition’, there’s also an irrepressible and irresistible urgency.
Campbell won’t be able to repeat this trick too often. Yet the closing ‘Fear No More’ betrays a softer core. Whilst it’s not in itself entirely successful, it at least demonstrates another dimension to Campbell’s world and hints at other paths that she could follow. In the meantime, ‘Nerve Up’ is an authoritative, surprisingly satisfying work.