tue 23/07/2024

Laura Mvula, Islington Assembly Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Laura Mvula, Islington Assembly Hall

Laura Mvula, Islington Assembly Hall

New material runs against the grain, but Mvula still sparkles

Laura Mvula: deliciously ambiguous

Three years ago Laura Mvula captured both hearts and minds with her intriguing and seductive debut album, Sing to the Moon. Last night she began again the nerve-wracking process of revealing new music, in this case her second album, The Dreaming Room, to be released in the summer.

Though critics loved Sing to the Moon, it was hindered commercially by its subtlety and tendency to duck the big glitzy climax in favour of a left-field closure. With the arrival of drummer and producer Troy Miller, now Mvula’s musical director, to work on this album, there was a chance this collection would be more on the nose. In some cases it is, and there were a few new songs that squeezed out her earlier complexity with a more forceful soul-pop formula, but it will take more than Miller to obscure her beautifully layered and expressive voice.

Mvula’s musical background and influences are diverse, and she blends gospel and jazz, even sometimes classical recital, into her artful soul-pop. Sing to the Moon was noted for its emotional reticence, but there was no stopping Mvula baring all last night. Heartbreak and her mother (in the audience) featured heavily; there’s even a spot for her grandma to speak on the album. The audience were love-bombed all night. Sometimes it sounded as if she was the one desperate to see us.

Mvula can achieve complex and wonderfully ambiguous effects even within a three-minute song

Mvula began with “Overcome”, a new song that features Nile Rogers on the album. It’s a kind of heartbreak ballad, with an unusual closing chorus (“outro” in the musical lexicon) about God’s children that looks gooey on the page, but actually saves the song from the sentimental, radio-playlist bombast to which its more conventional opening would otherwise have consigned it. This was followed by the ever-lovely “To the Moon”, before she delved again into new material.  

Several songs were repeated, on the premise that we, the audience, needed to understand them better, though the occasion did feel at times like a band rehearsal for the tour. Perhaps most quintessentially Mvula was the song that will be released with the title “Kiss My Feet”, though Mvula introduced it as “Kiss My Black Ass”. Both titles are a last-minute change from the name of a loved one to whom it was originally dedicated, who broke up with Mvula recently.

The song sounds much more like love than sorrow, with joyous bursts of celestial glockenspiel, chocolate-smooth strings and backing singers evoking, on first hearing at least, exultant happiness. But bursts of rattling percussion and increasingly tumultuous vocals undermine the mood subtly. With a background in composition, Mvula can achieve complex and wonderfully ambiguous effects even within a three-minute song.

“Lucky Man”, another new song, found her using a more commercial soul inflection and processed voice. She sounded remarkably like Andreya Triana, which is no bad thing but not what she’s best at. It contrasted unfortunately with one of her subtlest songs from the first album, “Father, Father”.  

“Phenomenal Woman”, based on the poem of the same name by Maya Angelou about a confident but idiosyncratic woman, abandons that poem’s subtlety in what seems like a concerted attempt at a hit single. Introduced by the sort of drumming that runs up your shins from the floor and makes your knees tremble, it sounded like a collaboration with Rudimental. And not in a good way.  

Like “Overcome”, “Phenomenal Woman” felt like half a step in the wrong direction. Boomtastic radio anthems just obscure what she is good at, and there was too much in this vein in her new work. It will be interesting to see if they succeed as intended, and if so, how that affects Mvula’s future development. In between these two pieces of Frankenstein-Mvula, however, were more examples of the delicate musicality that made Sing to the Moon such a delight.   

Mvula has spoken publicly about her experiences of stage fright, panic attacks and depression. Her relationship with the audience was endearingly intense, and became, by the end of the show, one of its defining features. “This is the happiest I am ever,” she said at one point. She sounded slightly sarcastic; but if her speech is nearly as complex and inflected as her singing, she clearly meant it, while simultaneously regarding the sensation with scepticism. She makes for a much more interesting compère than many singers, star-struck with their own importance.


'Phenomenal Woman', based on the poem by Maya Angelou, sounded like a collaboration with Rudimental


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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