Most artists’ origin stories follow a relatively easy-to-trace narrative arc, or at least one is easy to overlay on their story in hindsight. In the case of Bon Iver, it was escaping personal turmoil to record amid the solitude of rural Wisconsin. Jenny Lewis, meanwhile, left behind the child actor life to try her hand at rock stardom. These stories matter, and they echo through albums and entire careers.
For 25-year-old Aleksandra Denton, aka Shura, the narrative isn’t quite as straightforward — at least beyond the panic attacks and early days of pub gigs and YouTube clips. There’s a fable she has unknowingly revealed herself, spun together from random pop fantasies and essential personal beliefs. It’s as much an outline for her hotly anticipated debut, Nothing’s Real, as the framework for a bright and promising career: honesty, simplicity, and transparency.
Call it a result of her East London existence, but Shura’s got no need for grand statements dripping with overwrought theatricality. Instead, there’s a preference for sincere and honest declarations, and her messages rarely get lost in translation. She cuts right to the core on “What’s It Gonna Be?”, asking her lover if they’re down for eternity or ready to move on. She’s similarly direct on “What Happened To Us?”, questioning the end of a relationship with palpable confusion. She pulls no punches, either, openly revealing that she was abandoned romantically for wanting “Kidz ‘N’ Stuff”. There’s not a lot of depth to these declarations, but they’re totally heartfelt and genuine. They summarize not the complexity of the human heart, but the pain and anguish we all experience. Shura may speak softly and slowly, but hers is a universal tongue.
In an interview last year, Shura mentioned wanting to avoid the “academic brain.” In doing so, she simply added another layer to her mission for sincerity. A lot of people in her realm of progressive pop take a cerebral approach, while Shura would rather connect directly to the heart. That’s not to say that everything is so blunt, though, and she’s quite capable of pushing the envelope artistically. “White Light” is an eight-minute disco epic, and it never drags for a second thanks to perfect pacing and an energy Shura permeates with just a few simple phrases. With secret track “311215”, Shura needs little more than piano and vocal samples from her Russian mother to build a totally touching display. With these, it’s about comforting people as you slowly dangle new ideas in their face.
Shura’s made no secret that she’s inspired by, among others, Janet Jackson and Madonna. The former’s influence can be felt throughout the 13-track album. “Tongue Tied” is the most obvious homage to Ms. Jackson, and amid the disco/R&B mish-mash of drum machines and glitzy synths, Shura nails the mix of mystery, sex appeal, and stoic confidence. “2Shy” accomplishes much of the same, and Shura demonstrates a presence that’s fragile and yet perfectly in control. As for Madge, it’s not as obvious, but the brash vibes and playful intensity of early Material Girl define much of Shura’s aesthetic. She doesn’t simply ape these pop divas, though; Shura merely uses these two icons to bolster her persona and emotional awareness.
Aside from the personal insight, Shura claims to have written a song inspired in part by the film Interstellar. It’s not new to write a song about a movie, but it does demonstrate the kind of mind behind this LP. I’ve droned on about her dedication to earnest messages of love and life, but Shura’s so much more than her sense of lyrical minimalism. “Touch” feels slightly old hat, a song about not falling back in with your ex. But Shura makes it feel wildly new, and her immense personality lets us follow along in her journey. We feel her indecision, taste that temptation, and suffer through any self-denial. Shura is at the center of this album, and though the results aren’t always revelatory, she herself remains hugely engaging.
Essential Tracks: “What’s It Gonna Be?”, “White Light”, and “Touch”