Shura's thoughtful and emotionally resonant debut is as appreciative of the past as it is cognizant of its place in the present.
The long-anticipated debut album of English singer Shura, who has been steadily releasing songs since "Touch" in 2014, reveals an artist already surprisingly confident and mature in her own style. Over the past two years, more songs on the album have been released as singles than not, and justifiably so as Nothing's Real is packed with solid, infectious, deeply catchy pop songs, most all of which can stand alone just as easily as they can run with the pack. While it has become fashionable since the dawn of the digital era in particular to decry a singles-oriented approach to popular music, Shura's debut offering proves that when every song is a potential single, the shortcomings of this approach may be largely circumvented.
While Shura is the latest in a long, long line of '80s-mining artists, what separates her from the imitators and makes her album great is quite simply the sheer quality and attention to detail of the songs themselves. Shura doesn't stop at simply mimicking the sound and aesthetic of '80s synthpop; she recalls seminal albums like Madonna's Like a Virgin, Michael Jackson's Thriller, and even later works like Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope by mirroring those records' insistence on consistency and holism even within a pop context. In doing so, she joins bands like Haim and future tour-mates Tegan & Sara as a contemporary purveyor of thoughtful, mature, and emotionally resonant pop music for the 21st century, as appreciative of the past as it is cognizant of its place in the present.
It's difficult to choose just three or four songs as standouts, since at least nine of the tracks are strong candidates. After a brief instrumental introduction, the title track introduces Shura as she sits in a hospital bed recovering from a panic attack brought on by the sudden attention of Internet fame, singing, "my heart's not connected" but "they're telling me I'm fine". It kicks off the album on a note of uncommon vulnerability, and immediately showcases Shura's knack for incorporating storytelling into her music. This, too, hearkens back to a different time in pop music as it's rare these days to hear a pop song conform to a narrative as explicitly as, say, "Papa Don't Preach" or "Billie Jean", with most artists gravitating towards vague or universal subject matter to which any listener can likely relate directly.
"Nothing's Real" is about as specified and unusual of subject matter that Shura pursues on the album, however, with most other songs approaching more traditional pop territory, namely, the beginnings and ends of romance. Nonetheless, when Shura settles on a theme she tends to stick with it faithfully for the duration of the track. Often, she finds herself seeking to resolve a persistently ambiguous situation, as on "What's It Gonna Be?" and "Indecision". Other songs, like the surprisingly physical and tastefully lusty "Tongue Tied", deal more in the consummation of long-percolating sexual tension, whereas "Touch" and "What Happened to Us?" provide the sensitive and wounded cuts that ground the album's humanity.
"White Light", the album's epic highlight of highlights, elevates what could have been solid but relatively unremarkable lyrics into a moment of absolute transcendence, with Shura merging entirely with her object of affection on a horizon of ecstasy. Not a second of the song's seven-minute running time feels wasted or unnecessary, and indeed, its drawn out guitar parts simultaneously carve out the album's weightiest and most joyful moments.
Not to be understated, finally, is the importance of Shura being an openly gay artist operating within the pop world. While Nothing's Real still shines under a more formalist reading, which would treat such information as irrelevant, any person who has grown up queer or otherwise marginalized knows the importance and power of representation, and Shura joins the ranks of artists like Troye Sivan, Frank Ocean, Austra, and of course the aforementioned Tegan & Sara as part of a new front of visibly queer artists who are taking ownership of their sexual identities and incorporating them seamlessly into their music. In this sense, Shura's nostalgic music is also very much of this moment, which, given our current place in history, may in fact necessitate some form of retrospection and reckoning with the past even while pioneering toward the future.