Title: Drunk Tank Pink
Label: Dead Oceans
Released: 15 January 2021
"Drunk Tank Pink" by Adam Alter explores the psychological phenomenon of the colour's pacifying effects on prison inmates.
Drunk Tank Pink
"I’ve been waiting outside for all of my life
And now I’ve got to the door there’s no one inside
When are you coming back?
When arе you coming home?
I’ve been kicking the curb, I’vе been chipping the stone"
Over the last two weeks I’ve been on the lookout for the first album of the year that would really impress me. However, after cycling through a couple of 2021’s opening releases, I’d failed to find anything that had particularly grabbed me as of yet. Unlike most years, which have had multitudes of albums releasing each Friday, 2021 has been the first year to start midway into the coronavirus pandemic, which has slowed things down a little. And that’s resulted in a bit of an underwhelming kick-off to the year in terms of music. While there are a lot of releases scheduled for later in the year, things have been considerably more sporadic ever since the world came to a standstill. But nevertheless, it didn’t take too much longer after my brief new-year music discovery slump for me to stumble across Shame's “Drunk Tank Pink”; one of the very first excellent albums of 2021.
Shame have only released one album prior to “Drunk Tank Pink”, with their 2018 debut “Songs of Praise”. And despite already having created such a mature and well-constructed sound with their first record, “Pink” elevates that to an entire new level of quality, complexity and style; leaning further into experimenting with more intricate compositions. They’ve moved on from the directness of “Songs of Praise”, which was fairly reminiscent of other contemporaries such as IDLES and Fontaines D.C., and have instead honed into a more idiosyncratic sound of their own. And this is apparent as early as the second track on the album, ‘Nigel Hitter’; a groovy, jittery track that sounds heavily inspired by the likes of Talking Heads and Parquet Courts.
It’s here that the album starts to exhibit the compositional improvements the band has made over the past few years. While the record’s foundations lie within a deep, raw aggression, it manages to transform this energy into a unique and colourful blend of post-punk; shifting away from their more straightforward roots and into an exploration of dissonance, syncopation and rich songwriting. The title of the album refers to a shade of pink that is used in holding cells, supposedly designed to be subconsciously calming for inmates. And I think in many ways, this reflects the qualities of the music. Although the violence and passion of the music often remains, it constantly feels as though it’s attempting to pacify itself, to varying levels of success.
The album’s lyrics discuss key themes of loneliness, claustrophobia, and anxiety, which have plagued front-man Charlie Steen over the last few years. And its title came from Steen’s decision to paint his bedroom that very same colour of pink as the aforementioned holding cells, in an attempt to soothe himself. The record, in turn, feels like a constant struggle to stay on-top of these feelings, with both the lyrics and music feeling like a battle between attempting to find comfort in loneliness, and the crippling anxiety that comes with isolation. And as Steen has mentioned in many interviews, these are themes that have become even more potent in the wake of the recent pandemic. Although much of the album sounds panicked, aggressive and frantic, it’s clear that there’s a battle to find catharsis amongst the turmoil.
“In my room, in my womb
Is the only place I find peace
All alone, in my home
Yeah, I still can't get to sleep”
While the album kicks off with the fairly lukewarm opener, 'Alphabet', it immediately picks up once it hits the second track ‘Nigel Hitter’. And from here, "Drunk Pink Tank" manages to uphold this same level of quality throughout its entirety. Each track has a great sense of progression and variety to them, with an excellent balance and fluctuation of tone that keeps them constantly feeling fresh. A good example of this is in the very next track, ‘Born in Luton’, which demonstrates excellent use of contrast, as the song’s downtempo choruses juxtapose against berserk and frantic verses. Even in its slower moments, the instrumental is pummelling and aggressive, which maintains the tension of the rest of the track while adding a bit of musical diversity.
The next song, ‘March Day’, is an upbeat banger which reflects on themes of depression and isolation, with Steen grappling with negative thoughts, and an inability to find the motivation for getting out of bed. It uses a 7/4-time signature to deliver a great off-kilter sound, which starts to show some of the rhythmic intricacies the band has explored throughout “Drunk Tank Pink”. And this seems to be a central focus behind the composition of the entire album; expanding upon the band’s sound by adding multiple layers of musical complexity. Specifically, the very Black-Midi-sounding ‘Snow Day’ throws the album into full throttle math-rock, with complex drum patterns, shifting time signatures and fluctuating tempos. It’s a highlight of the record, displaying a perfect balance between fragility and precision. And like the rest of the album, despite the increase in complexity, it’s extremely accessible and fun.
‘Water in the Well’ is one of the album’s more riotous and danceable tracks, with a driving guitar lick that keeps the song constantly pumping. It’s accompanied by a crowd of backing vocals, like some other tracks on the album, which helps add to the boisterous atmosphere of the song. And much like ‘Snow Day’, it feels very reminiscent of Black Midi, even sounding almost like a livelier sister-song to ‘Speedway’, off their 2019 debut “Schlagenheim”. Once the Parquet Courts-like chanting is thrown in, the track becomes an absolute blast, and one of the most fun on the whole album.
The only song that really feels underutilized here is the mellow ‘Human, for a Minute’, which is a huge departure from the instrumental and lyrical quality of the rest of the album. It isn’t that the record didn’t need a more downtempo song to break up the rest of its frenzied track list; it’s just that ‘Human…’ is such a lethargic and boring inclusion to have ham-fisted into the middle of the album. It’s incredibly flat, repetitive and sounds as though it belongs on a different album, rather than amongst such an otherwise tight collection of post-punk songs. Thankfully, it’s followed by the extremely strong track ‘Great Dog’, which immediately manages to recover any of the momentum the album may have lost with ease.
‘Great Dog’ may just also be one of the album’s best moments, with an absolutely visceral combination of noisy guitars, slamming drums, and an excellent performance from Steen. It’s less than two minutes long, but feels like a stab of adrenaline directly into the bloodstream. There’s an interruption towards the end by a cute ad-lib moment before the song hurls itself back into a chaotic, cathartic finish, which is exactly the fantastic revitalization the album needed after the slight speedbump with ‘Human…’.
‘6/1’ and ‘Harsh Degrees’ are two more excellent songs that dominate in the final moments of the album, before leading into the concluding track, ‘Station Wagon’. This is a far slower, and more gradually building song in comparison to the rest of “Drunk Tank Pink”, and it stands out as it slowly develops, eventually bringing the album to a noisy, chaotic close. It’s a fantastic and satisfying conclusion which feels strangely optimistic, with lyrics from Steen that seem to suggest a coming-to-terms of living with certain burdens and difficulties. And after enduring such a battle of emotions throughout the rest of the record, 'Station Wagon' is a really wonderful and poetic resolution which feels incredibly well earned.
“But nobody said this was gonna be easy
And with you as my witness
I'm gonna try and achieve
“Drunk Pink Tank” is a fantastic album, which will undoubtedly remain one of the year’s best releases as 2021 progresses. It’s incredibly coherent, with excellent performances from everyone involved; improving the composition, production and lyrical content on all fronts since their 2018 debut. Although it has some slight dips in quality, such as the fairly mild opening track, and the underwhelming ‘Human, for a Minute…’, the rest of the album is of such high calibre that these hardly hinder its overall enjoyment. If you’re wondering whether there have already been any excellent albums released in the new year, you need look no further than here.
"I never did nothing
I couldn't handle
Burn at both ends
That's my candle
I'm burning at both ends"
Reviewed by Layton Bryce - 17/01/21