A year ago, Shamir Bailey was working in a Topshop in North Las Vegas and trying to forge a career as a country singer. It’s fair to say his fortunes have somewhat changed recently.
In truth, the musical background of the brain behind debut album “Ratchet” is far more complex; before he was given a drum machine by a friend, he also fronted a punk duo and listened to Marina and the Diamonds in his spare time. His breakout release in 2014, “Northtown EP”, showed his ability to master a genre in almost no time at all – he claimed to have never written electronic music before. Suddenly the darling of NME, signed to XL Recordings and heading to many of the biggest festivals this summer, Shamir’s own success may have decided his future for him.
In many ways, Shamir is the music star of today – he caught the attention of producers after uploading music to Soundcloud, and in a recent tweet he stated he had “no gender [and] no sexuality”. “Ratchet” perfectly reflects this, with a mixture of modern pop sounds and Bailey’s own dash of madness.
At the heart of many of the tracks on “Ratchet” are experimental quirks that add something extra to Bailey’s electro pop base – mad synth solos, heavy cowbell involvement and saxophone interjections are all large presences on the album. On some occasions, such as understated opener “Vegas”, all these elements combine to introduce the album to great effect. Following a thudding bass introduction, Bailey cleverly portrays the sleaze and delirium of his home city, and subtly brings his retro style to the fore.
Lead single “Call It Off” brings more of Bailey’s stinging soundworld, leaving no room to breathe while sticking to pop writing formulas. With a chorus dripping in vintage 80s synths reminiscent of Madonna’s “Vogue”, it’s one of the most coherent hits on the album. Every quirk has its place, and every oddity fits well enough to make it blend.
When speaking of Shamir, it’s natural to first talk of his voice. A soft counter-tenor, Bailey’s vocals have often been described as “androgynous”, and on “Ratchet”, they never shy away, taking on a brash and bold quality. Shamir’s a risk taker. An almost refreshing mish-mash of ideas populate the likes of “Make a Scene”, and in particular “Hot Mess”. Here we can hear Bailey electronically modulating his voice – while this happens frequently on “Ratchet”, it is most prominent here. As the title suggests, the song is something of a ramshackle collection of sounds, not quite sure of where it’s going; it’s sometimes unclear whether it works, but it never fails to be compelling.
There’s no doubt that Bailey’s music and personality polarises opinion: the official video for “Call It Off” currently has over 4000 dislikes, and, worryingly enough, had more dislikes than likes in its first week online. When listening to “Ratchet”, Shamir’s daring use of sound can sometimes backfire when playing on repeat. A vocal riff which can delight once, like the almost jazzy lilt of “Youth”, can come across as annoying on another occasion. It’s these experiments that make Bailey worth listening to, however – there’s a formulaic element to some of his work, but intricate embellishments distract you and let you explore the many layers.
In fact, the few occasions where Bailey plays it safe prove to be the most underwhelming points on “Ratchet”. For example, the comparatively stripped back “Demon” has its own qualities, but relies a little too much on its simple pop structure, and struggles a little for variety. The incessant beat of “Head In The Clouds”, plus the reappearance of the cowbell, can also be wearing.
To finish the album, however, Shamir defies expectations again: With just an acoustic guitar, “KC” showcases where Bailey could have been had he not picked up the drum machine a year ago. Where the mere idea of Shamir singing country seemed unfathomable, in “KC” it fits, and so easily too. With “Ratchet”, Shamir has not only proven he is an experimenter, but one adept at conquering multiple genres. He’s shown a refreshing desire to be different, and whether you love him or hate him, you cannot deny that Shamir is different.