Album review: Laura Mvula – Phenomenal Woman

John Preston

John Preston

South London based music obsessive with strong opinions about most things. Doubts Madonna has another good record in her but would love more than anything to be proved wrong.
John Preston

Laura Mvula may go deep but she doesn’t get heavy on her more spiritual and fluid follow-up to 2013’s Sing to the Moon. Recovery and rebirth are Phenomenal Woman‘s themes.

Some of the themes found on her more commercially crowd pleasing material – earlier tracks like ‘Green Garden’ and ‘That’s Already’ – have been dispensed with and replaced by a more personal and serious mood of reflection. Mvula here plays heavily to her upbringing, musical training, life experiences and cultural identity. There is an ingrained and instinctual religious overtone, and an amusing interlude confirms her family’s belief in the power of prayer – God is a word that is repeated on half the tracks. She boycotted the Brits because of the lack of black representation but isn’t preachy and on the tough-then-tender ‘People’, featuring Wretch 32, Mvula doesn’t shirk confrontation.

‘Forgive me, I’ve been a long way from my mind . . . my head is gone’, Mvula sings on Lucky Man Mvula, as she appears to reflect on her struggle with the mental health issues that have plagued her since the release of her debut. It’s an incredible track and, in what would appear to be signature of Mvula’s writing and stylistic choices, ‘Lucky Man’ ends up far, far away from its initial sonic intentions with the singer falling down a sonic rabbit hole of sparkling, retro Disney harmonies reminiscent of the gaudy stylings of St Vincent‘s Actor album.

‘Angel’ follows an a capella intro with a sitar-twanging, showtune-melody verse and a spinning, multi-harmonised outro that is giddy and euphoric. Meanwhile, ‘Bread’ blends trip-hop and an orchestral coda to stunning effect.

The six-minute emotional core of the album is the hymnal and intimate ‘Show Me Love’. Mvula’s yearning vocals swing backwards and forwards from a spacious echo to that of a close up confidante. ‘Show Me Love’ is either about the rediscovery of a lapsed faith or the need for human attention – and quite possibly both. It doesn’t have the unflinching oddness of, say, ‘Is There Anybody Out’ from her debut and is in many ways more befitting of the easy listening genre, but then that would suggest it has a universal and bland appeal and that also isn’t true. In the song’s final 30 seconds the mood unexpectedly darkens. ‘Oh God and it’s too late, oh God,’ Mvula mournfully realises before the strings dwindle away to nothingness.

The album opens and closes with its most conventional and accessible tracks, by Mvula’s standards at least, with both songs being far more traditionally dance indebted than anything on Sing to the Moon. She enlists the help of Nile Rodgers on the swelling and majestic ‘Overcome’ and the title track is a concise, jolting and staccato funk track that owes a lot to her friend and admirer, Prince.

The song titles alone leave no ambiguity regarding the message of the music here: ‘Get back up and do it again, strong woman.’ In lesser hands than Laura Mvula’s, this frequently told but essential message may have come over as cliche and throwaway. ‘The Dreaming Room’, though, is the sound of a thoroughly individual artist creating music that is often otherworldly but as seen through a more traditional and frequently fascinating lens.

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