Sally Shapiro, the icy disco queen who captured hearts in 2007 with her superb debut Disco Romance, returns with a solid (if a tad familiar) sophomore effort. Backed again by producer Johan Agebjorn, the anonymous Swedish singer, My Guilty Pleasure is another compact slice of shining discopop, at once blasé about its influences and revelatory in its emotional range.
The thing is, Sally Shapiro is a little in danger of becoming Agebjorn and Shapiro’s hobby. They’re famously reticent about performing live, and pulled out last year even from a run of European DJ gigs. And the explanation, on Shapiro’s website, runs: “What if you just want to be a normal person with a normal job, record songs in the weekends, and spend the holidays picking blueberries instead of going on tour.” But no great musician in any genre has built a career out of hours, and though the group’s amateur spirit can be charming, it can also be a recipe for sameness. Turns out, you have to work long hours to reinvent your sound album to album.
Nevertheless, there’s plenty that appeals on My Guilty Pleasure. The album as a whole has a more upbeat feel than Disco Romance — it’s less introspective, and, yes, filled with more straightforward dancefloor tracks. The vibe’s exactly the same, though. (You know it — Italo disco/pop/synths galore). First single “Miracle”’s a sterling example, expanding Shapiro’s musical reach while retaining the simple wonder that buoys so much of their work. “Dying in Africa”, another standout that strongly recalls Toto, is actually a cover of a 2006 track by Swedish producer Nicolas Makelberge. Shapiro’s version is slightly less steely, without the original’s overlapping tin-pan ping. Still, the song turns out supremely melancholy.
As on Disco Romance, Agebjorn is relying on Shapiro’s voice to colour and unify the album. Shapiro is an unusual pop diva — she is completely asexual. Her words, rarely about romantic ecstasy, more often paint her as the rejected, or forlorn, casualty of love. This is a refreshing pop persona to say the least. Part of the appeal’s probably her lilting, Scandinavian accent. But part of it’s Shapiro, of course — when she says, “I can’t stand to take another ‘no’ tonight” you feel the desperation right there with her.
The greater timbral variation across the new album comes off like a rebuke to simple electropop artists such as Lykke Li, i.e. a lush, enveloping musical landscape makes a dance song, not a witty one-liner. In this way Agebjorn’s beating a retreat into his own unfashionable, esoteric world; a world in which there’s no shame in modulating up a whole tone mid-song for that bit of added oomph. Perhaps Italo’s had its day in the sun, and perhaps the guys making this wonderful, un-ironic music would be just fine with that.
But regardless of its greater intent, My Guilty Romance is not quite as good a record as its predecessor. It just doesn’t have the density of great tunes that made Disco Romance such an addiction. Maybe my expectations were too high — as Shapiro herself dreams on “My Fantasy”, “I was in need of a brand new start.” Still, I think we can hope for something that perfect from a group with so much vitality.