Dua Lipa’s second album, Future Nostalgia, was released at the least promising moment possible: 27 March 2020, the day after the first lockdown came into force in the UK. Just as a pandemic swept the world, she was releasing a maximalist pop album that, surely, was designed for the communal experiences no one was having. But something about it connected: Future Nostalgia was a worldwide hit, the first British album released in 2020 to go platinum, the tenth bestselling record in the world that year. It turned out to be the right album for a wretched year.
No wonder her show at the O2 was centred on it – every track was heard, which would normally be overegging the promotional pudding, but, given its consistent excellence, was entirely justifiable. The songs were the centre, too; it was a restrained production for a big arena show. There were baubles and effects, but nothing to draw the attention from either the music or the effortless charisma of the star.
Perhaps Future Nostalgia resonated because if you looked behind the shards of light dancing off the mirrorball, there was something darker beneath. For all that it borrowed from the late 1970s, recreating disco’s dream of songs so lush you’re not sure whether to dance to them or take a bath in them, it wasn’t all 2 a.m. on the dancefloor – there were an awful lot of moments when it felt as though dawn was breaking, and the cracks in the make-up were evident in the light, and the morning after was bursting into view.
She did not shy away from that mood. At arena shows, the sheer volume can make picking out individual lyrics difficult, but the opening of ‘Boys Will Be Boys’ was delivered with perfect, jolting clarity: ‘It’s second nature to walk home before the sun goes down/ And put your keys between your knuckles when there’s boys around.’ There was raciness, too, in ‘Good in Bed’, though, unusually for pop, it was not someone boasting about their or their lover’s physical proficiency, but a celebration of two people together.
Of course, music – more than any other art – connects with people for personal reasons that have nothing to do with the artist. Maybe I hear the melancholy in Future Nostalgia because it came out just as my mother was dying: I hear those songs and think of driving up and down the M4, and of hospices, and funerals, and going alone to her house to clear away rubbish and pull up weeds. That’s me: but the melancholy is real, in the melodies that swoop from chord to chord, in the sense that after the party there’s always a crash. I think Dua Lipa might be the perfect pop star.
Steve Albini has been one of the defining figures of alternative music for nearly 40 years, as someone who records other people making albums (most famously, Nirvana and the Pixies) and as someone who makes his own music. For the past 30 years, that’s been with the trio Shellac, who were the unlikely headliners of the stoner-metal event Desertfest in Camden on Saturday night – unlikely because Shellac, as they observed, laughing, are very much not a metal band, despite the presence of loud, distorted guitars.
Albini has always talked of what he does as work. Shellac work: they set up their own stage, and broke it down as soon as they stopped playing. And their music sounds like industry – not industrial music, that pulsing, throbbing, electronic variant of goth, but actual industry. It sounds like lathes and saws and drills: Albini’s guitar scraped and clanged, Bob Weston’s bass was an implacable jackhammer thud, and Todd Trainer’s sticks flitted around the kit always threatening to depart from the rhythm but somehow returning to it just in time.
It’s music that sounds turned inside out, but it was desperately compelling. The Roundhouse was nowhere near full, but without the sense of expectation that a packed house introduces, there was an air of appreciation, of getting a private audience. Some of this should have been dull – ‘The End of Radio’, which closed the set, was little more than three clumping bass chords, Trainer bashing his kit seemingly randomly, and Albini moaning about how bad radio is; all right, old man! We’ve heard that one before! But it was sad and cold and brutal and thrilling.
Shellac are funny, too. Albini used to be famed as the angriest man in rock music, and one of its most hated (there’s a story about a writer going to meet him in Chicago, near the start of his career, and being surprised by the number of people shouting at Albini as they walked down the street), but the Q&As with which they fill in time between songs got genuine laughs (Shellac employ no crew, so every guitar was tuned on stage, every technical foul-up was addressed by the principals). It was a show to make you feel alive, albeit discomfited.