Drunk-tank pink is the shade of pacification. Meant to neutralize hostility and placate violence, the color was originally developed for a naval correctional institute in 1979, and when studies appeared to confirm its calming effects, the bubblegum hue was splashed across prison cells, psychiatric wards, and of course, drunk tanks. South London loudmouths Shame seem immune to its powers. Their second album is named for the pigment, which frontman Charlie Steen slathered on the walls of a roomy closet at home. During a period of self-imposed hermetism inside what he christened “the Womb,” Steen sat in silence and channeled an internal noise.
While Steen sheltered in the Womb, guitarist Sean Coyle-Smith shuttered himself in his bedroom down the hall, trying to make his instrument sound like anything but a guitar. Their simultaneous isolation—which occurred before everyone in the world was forced to stay home—was a response to the partying and pandemonium of non-stop touring. The austerity has served them well. Far more complex than their 2018 debut Songs of Praise, Drunk Tank Pink is the sound of a band stretching into new shapes. They’re still young, loud, and shouty—but with the guidance of producer James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Foals), their latest work is detailed and dimensional, fueled by calculated intensity.
When Shame recorded Songs of Praise, they had barely stomped out of adolescence, and their transition into adulthood was informed by a rigorous tour schedule and rowdy gigs. Shame’s live sets are charged and rambunctious; Steen sings like he’s doing hard manual labor, jugular bulging and sweat dripping. Drunk Tank Pink maintains that energy, but textures the straightforward rock of their first album with layers of frenzied guitar work, restless percussion, and Steen’s total ferocity. Anxiety has always lived in Shame’s music, but it seems to have grown into a sizable mass. This record is the result of sitting still with that anxiety for the first time, pondering the strange gap between youth and adulthood. Drunk Tank Pink is the sound of Shame staring down that void and expelling their angst.
“Born in Luton” illustrates their newly multiplanar sound, kicking off with several splintered guitar passages that scratch against one another—a nod to Afropop’s rhythmic style, or perhaps new wave’s appropriation of it. Shame let their influences mingle here; the verses are propulsive and skittering, but the chorus stretches into a slow and heavy dirge. Steen bends accordingly, spitting clipped phrases at first, but reserving his energy to wail about the cruelty of boredom: “I’ve been kicking the curb, I’ve been chipping the stone,” he howls. “I’ve been waiting outside for all of my life.” It feels like waiting for adulthood to begin, only to learn that no such distinction exists.
“Water in the Well” is another showcase for Steen’s natural aptitude as a performer. He squeals and rasps and deadpans; his onstage vitality is palpable in the recording. Always a bit cheeky, he makes it hard to tell when he’s in character and when he’s running on conviction. When he asks, “Which way is heaven, sir? We all got lost somehow,” you wonder if he’s asking Satan himself for directions. His bouncy candor is another diversion, sharpening even the cruelest lines: “I’m not your lover, dear,” he barks on a later verse. “You’re just my special, special, special friend.”
Steen recognizes the importance of humor to Shame. “If it ever stopped being funny then the band would cease,” he told Loud and Quiet in 2018. It is hard to imagine the group functioning without an element of playfulness, but a handful of songs on Drunk Tank Pink enter more somber territory. “Human, for a Minute” reflects on how we see ourselves within the context of a relationship (“I never felt human before you arrived”), and whether we feel deserving of love. It offers no catharsis, save for Coyle-Smith’s simple, bright guitar riffs.
“Snow Day” and closer “Station Wagon” are Shame at their most audacious, and the theatrics serve them. The former fuses doomsday rock with the twitchy, swift percussion of Bowie’s “Blackstar.” The collision of punk force and jazz precision is a winning combination—one previously tested by bands like Squid and black midi. Shame are still able to make it their own, though, and there’s nothing quite as sinister as Steen glowering amid the “sting of mother nature.”
But the band reach peak drama on “Station Wagon”—an ambitious number that might have overwhelmed their tastes for unadorned punk just a few years ago. The six-and-a-half minute piece opens as a meandering Americana road poem before cracking into a major-key coda. As the instruments pile on, Steen spouts wild sermons from the pinnacle of human ego: “Won’t somebody please bring me that cloud?!” The song itself was inspired by Elton John, once known for his own delusions of grandeur, but Steen’s deranged pleadings seem revelatory, more deeply rooted than pop-star mythology. Had Shame tackled this subject three years ago, it might have amounted to a playful rock song. Instead, “Station Wagon” encapsulates the band’s development as songwriters, shouting back at the bombast of youth and the perilous chore of moving beyond it.
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