Credit: Danny Kasirye
by Kayla Beardslee Music Pop Rocks

Laura Mvula | Pink Noise

August 17, 2021

Laura Mvula’s latest proves that nostalgic throwback records can still feel fresh, even if its artificial construction keeps things mostly, if pleasurably, surface-level.

Listening to Laura Mvula’s newest album Pink Noise is sort of like having an anvil labeled “THE EIGHTIES” dropped on your head — in the best way possible. Retro-styled pop music is an easy sell and has been for years, but in a post-“Blinding Lights,” “Say So,” and Future Nostalgia world, its influence has reached a new peak. Pink Noise feels like a natural endpoint of that trend: with so many artists around the globe attempting to put their own contemporary spin on ‘70s disco and ‘80s synthpop, why not distinguish your work by shooting right past modernity and looping around to unfiltered nostalgia instead?

Pink Noise isn’t shy about its inspirations: from the first few seconds of the very first track, its production hits with a visceral rush of “Oh, this is exactly how people decided the ’80s sounded.” It’s not just in the abstract feel of the music, but in specific production choices that pay homage to the signature sound of ’80s analog synths. It’s also there in the simple but strongly sung lyrics, with hooks like “There’s something between us / And you can’t deny it / I know that you feel it / And you can’t deny it.” But that simplicity works because of Mvula’s commitment to powerful vocals and evocative sound design — and often, the syncopated rhythm of a line or its interplay with instrumental riffs make the writing feel much more complex than it looks on paper.

Many of the tracks on Pink Noise seem to be trying to answer a question — namely, how much is too much? (If that seems excessive, well, why bother to go for a throwback aesthetic if you’re not going to commit fully?) Tracks like “Safe Passage,” “Church Girl,” and “Magical” layer all kinds of twinkly synths, cavernous drums, bright electric guitars, and the occasional brass instrument over each other until you can almost smell the hairspray and see the shoulder pads materializing in front of you. “Church Girl,” the second single, also wins the award for “Intro that sounds most likely to segue into Whitney Houston singing The clock strikes / Upon the hour…”

Sometimes, the music does teeter right on the edge of Pastiche Cliff: ridiculously cheesy ballad and Simon Neil duet “What Matters” comes close to plunging over, as does closing track “Before the Dawn” (although its verses have some of the best production on the album, the “remember the night comes before the dawn” hook is a cliché idea delivered too slowly to be convincing). But not every song on the project is soaked in nostalgia to the point of inebriation. The title track has a more minimalist beat — relatively speaking, anyway; it’s still a full-on banger — that leaves more space in the mix for the listener to breathe, as does “Golden Ashes,” whose writing feels almost enigmatic compared to the straightforward lyricism elsewhere on the album (“Sometimes I don’t wake up from dreaming / I’m shook from bleeding / And my screaming sounds like angels”). 

It’s rare for an album’s best song to be the penultimate track, but Mvula accomplishes this feat with “Got Me,” the third single. If you listen to any song from the project, it should be this one. It has the catchiest writing, the snappiest production, the clearest sense of wit and fun, the most dynamic interplay between instrumental and vocals — name a superlative, and “Got Me” probably has it. It feels like the point that Pink Noise has been building up to over the course of its entire tracklist, the proof that yes, a throwback record can still manage to be fresh and surprising. With such a heavy focus on flashy production and nostalgia, rather than offering up anything particularly new in terms of musical style, it can be hard to connect to the songs of Pink Noise on a deeper level: the music is easy to listen to, but it’s also easy to forget after the final chorus. But when the album hits, on highlights like “Got Me,” “Church Girl,” “Remedy,” and “Pink Noise,” it really hits — those echoing synths and explosive choruses will remind you that nostalgia, when viewed through the right lens, can feel more sweet, vivid, and memorable than anything in the present.

Published as part of Album Roundup — July 2021 | Part 2.