Album Review: LoneLady - Nerve Up

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LoneLady - Nerve Up
LoneLady - Nerve Up (Image courtesy of Warp Records)

Manchester, U.K. has long been fertile ground for musical innovation. From misery-wracked post-punk to Brit-pop revivalism, the small industrial city has been a key catalyst in the the last 35 years of rock. LoneLady (real name Julie Campbell) is one of the city's latest musical exports. Her songs—with all instruments played by Campbell herself—are smart and catchy, and while it's too early to tell if she's Manchester's next great hope, her claustrophobic DIY pop marks her as an artist to watch.

LoneLady put out her debut album Nerve Up last week on Warp Records. While her sound is sourced in some of her hometown forebears—Joy Division's convulsive coldness and the Smiths' lush melancholia, to name a couple, are clear touchstones for Nerve Up—one of her most profound touchstones is actually American, namely, the early R.E.M. of Chronic Town and Murmur. The resulting cocktail of shambolic yet taut rhythms, jangling guitars, throbbing drum machines and entrancing vocals is rewarding and often incredible.

Due to its spare instrumentation, loping melodies and no-frills production, Lonelady's music seems drab at first. Less bombastic tracks like single "Intuition" and opener "If Not Now" leave weak first impressions, sounding shrill and slight at the same time. Yet after repeat listens, a sort of terse catchiness emerges, and Campbell's fragmented lyrics begin to crawl around in your head and under your skin. Once this urgent energy is revealed, LoneLady's strengths come to the surface, particularly her smart, tuneful songwriting and addictively androgynous singing.

The title track's chorus, then, can be taken as a mission statement, as Campbell sings, "I need the tension of a hot ledge high up/ It's not enough to break my solitude/ I grip my fists along a barb-wire fence edge/ I need the tension/ I need the tension up high, high." The tune's musical backing responds in kind, as the track is a flurry of skittering trebly guitars and rusty drum machines that create an eerie setting for her playful lyrical and vocal dramatics. Campbell's singing style is halting and highly rhythmic, with words and syllables often stretched over several rushed breaths, yet her voice remains expressive, passionate, and lovely throughout. The song's closing lyrics remain ear-catching even as Campbell practically whispers them in a falsetto riddled with microscopic pauses: "You never really un-der-stoo-ood/ You never got the ne-e-erve up."

"Marble," meanwhile, is another triumph, its echo-drenched vocals and chugging rhythms lending a sense of Echo and the Bunnymen-like gravity and grandeur to the song's anxious tunnel-vision pop. "Immaterial" is the album's most R.E.M.-inspired moment, all chiming guitars and plaintive, distended singing. "Early the Haste Comes" is darker and more angular, its scratchy-rhythm-guitars-run-amok sound clearly indebted to post-punkers like Wire and Gang of Four, but Campbell's performance is no less versatile and winning than on any other track on the album.

Nearly every song on Nerve Up is poppy and well-written enough to be a single, but it's "Have No Past" that yields LoneLady's biggest yet simplest hook. Playing on the album's theme of tension and nervousness, Campbell contrasts the tune's big, bright refrain with low-key, nearly chanted verses. When the chorus finally comes through—"I wait long, you come home/ I run you through like a knife/ Have no past, have no past/ I'll make a ghost out of you," Campbell sings—its fractured allusions to domesticity, love and death are drowned out by sheer melodic bliss.

The drowsy, dirge-like closer "Fear No More" stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the album's mid- or up-tempo rhythms, but it draws out some of the darker elements in LoneLady's sound and style that might be drowned out by her skillful, often upbeat songwriting.

At 40 minutes, Nerve Up is fairly short, but given the appropriately-titled album's sparse tension, it turns out to be the perfect length. Here's hoping that this promising new artist will have a career as impressive as those of her timeless influences.