In a recent interview with The Guardian, Charlie Steen, frontman of the London punk outfit Shame, ponders over being caught in the tricky modern environment of the rock musician. “The idea of the leather jacket-wearing, womanizing, drug-fuelled rock star should be burned,” he says. At the same time, he recollects that he grew up attracted to the idealized lifestyle of larger-than-life personalities like David Bowie and Iggy Pop. This upsetting dichotomy and many other antipathies towards the harsh realities of both past and present-day society feeds Shame’s witty and raucous sound on their official debut, Songs of Praise.
A fair reflection of this album’s bitter reticence to tradition is that its title is an ironic reference to a BBC program broadcasting hymns from England’s church services. And while this hostility may be nothing new to the punk ethos, the music of Songs of Praise is so infectiously humorous and toxic as to make for a fresh and interesting listen. Full of youthful rage, Shame looks to tarnish fraudulently clean reputations with rude lyrics and mean guitar riffs.
The sound of this album can fairly be described as manic, frustrated, or even thrashing, but throughout, there is an ease and listenability which speaks to the confidence and talent that the band has as songwriters. Owing debts to groups like the Fall and Blur, while fitting nicely into a lively current British punk scene that includes acts like Idles and the Cut Ups, Songs of Praise is mostly a good listen from top to bottom. There are plenty of playful yet venomous one-liners and refrains here. Just try the perverse humor on “Gold Hole” or the perilous criticisms on “The Lick”. The two guitar attack, driving drum and bass, and rapid lyrical delivery lends every song a sense of aggressive urgency and danger.
Furthermore, Steen and company are more than aware of the present political and musical culture in which they exist. Remarking on the idea of being considered a rock star, Steen calls it offensive to be thought of as “a white male, skinny, perfect hair, who sleeps with women daily”. This tendency towards the obliteration of outdated notions and institutions frequents many of the songs as well. The biting assault on societal injustices in “Friction” and “Lampoon” is particularly affecting as Steen offers bitterly, “You say it’s going forwards / But I feel it flowing backwards / In a time of such injustice/How can you not want to be heard?”
While Shame may not be looking to reimagine punk, they certainly renovate it and often to some significant acclaim (even though this is exactly the opposite of what they want). There are a number of high points on this record, many of which consist of Steen repeating a line over and over, on the verge of strangling you for attention. There’s also something refreshing about this level of antagonism to a dated idea of a rock star.
Shame seems to be ushering in a new type of male aggression that is focused on more productive targets. Finally, for a band so critical of fame, popularity, and the idea of being rock stars, it will be interesting to see what happens to their songwriting as they become more recognized. But if Songs of Praise is any indication, music fans have no cause for any alarm.