Oh, you know it's crazy
Oh it is so crazy, it's crazy
Oh, it is crazy to see a ship go down

Watching your country colossally shoot itself in the foot can precipitate a number of various reactions. Believe me, I’m British. Brexit is the equivalent of blowing one’s own legs off with a sawn-off shotgun, and now I can’t start the day without first emitting a monumental sigh of defeated despair.

Many Americans will have spent the past eighteen months doing something similar to that, or possibly to what Natalie Prass does on the churning centrepiece of her new album, ‘Ship Go Down’: namely, shaking their heads as they watch cable news, muttering to themselves about how crazy it all is. Prass, of course, did more than that. Upon Trump’s election on that fateful November day of 2016, Prass decided to tear up what she had started writing and recording for her second album, and begin again, with the express goal of addressing, to aptly appropriate Marvin Gaye’s phrase, what’s going on.

The album also represented an opportunity to exhibit the immense growth that Prass has undergone as an artist since the 2015 release of her self-titled, debut album, which was, in fact, recorded in 2011-12. Expectation-shattering opener, ‘Oh My,’ immediately sets the tone, presenting Prass as a completely different entity to the heartbroken, reserved, introspective Karen Carpenter and Dusty Springfield-channeling chanteuse of her debut. In her interview with our very own Rob Hakimian, Prass revealed that, listening back to her debut, she can detect the lack of confidence in her vocal performances. That previously absent confidence abounds on ‘Oh My’ and other upbeat, muscular funk workouts on the album like de facto feminist anthem, ‘Sisters,’ and the closing rallying cry of ‘Ain’t Nobody.’ Her voice hasn’t undergone a radical transformation - it’s still an impossibly tender and delicate thing - but the way it’s employed, and the musical backing that accompanies it, recasts Prass as a woman leading the march, emboldening others. She’s still heartbroken, but, this time, it’s American politics that’s done the heartbreaking.

Seems like everyday we're losing
When we choose to read the news, yeah, oh my

So, how best to combat the misery induced by the 24/7 rolling TV news cycle? By releasing an album of upbeat funk and soul, that will get bodies moving, first in living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms across the country, and then out onto the streets in force. And to that end, Prass has once again enlisted her childhood friend, Matthew E. White, to deliver that warm, deep and rich production sheen, which so elevated her debut. The studio band that Prass has enlisted for The Future and the Past is first class to a man, so you best believe that this is an absolutely sumptuous-sounding album. Musicality is evidently revered by all involved, probably to an extent that would be considered deeply uncool nowadays. Steely Dan, the epitome of audiophile muso-pop, come to mind at various junctures, most obviously on ‘Never Too Late,’ which glides effortlessly on a bed of clavinet. Prass and the band tackle everything from the beat-driven, propulsive funk of ‘Oh My,’ ‘Sisters,’ and ‘Ain’t Nobody’ to the effervescent pop of ‘Short Court Style’ to the moody atmospherics and high drama of ‘Hot for the Mountain’ and ‘Ship go Down’ with aplomb, lacing each track with countless flourishes and details that reward repeat listens. Take the deceptively complex, barely repeating, guitar part on lead single, ‘Short Court Style,’ or the myriad percussive accents, via bottles, shakers, claps and even a quica, that pepper the album and contribute to the sense of space and clarity in the recording.

Prass has really pushed her style here. Were it not for the consistent presence of her unmistakable voice, for the most part, you'd be hard pressed to believe the same artist released both of her albums. That's not to say she's left the balladry with which she made her reputation entirely behind. Some of the songs written prior to Trump's election survived to make it onto The Future and the Past (appropriately, the album encapsulates both her past and “future” artistic iterations), and these turn out to be more personal; a clearer continuation of the deeply personal, lovelorn strife that marked her debut. ‘Lost’ is a powerful, if verging ever so slightly on the overwrought, ballad that is, to put it plainly, about calling time on a damaging relationship. Prass’ bid for freedom and autonomy is reflected in the production credits of the song: she helmed this one herself, and her vocals are captured beautifully. Trey Pollard’s always on-point string arrangements provide subtle augmentation as the track swells with a duelling sense of mournfulness and defiance. Prass has spoken of how the #metoo movement inspired the writing of the song's lyrics; yet another example of how this artist, who is so enamoured of the sounds and styles of the past, is successfully engaging with the present.

There is a sense though that ‘Lost’ is a little on the populist side, less idiosyncratic than the intricately arranged numbers of her debut. More in keeping with that style is penultimate track, ‘Far From You,’ Prass’ touching homage to her self-proclaimed kindred spirit, Karen Carpenter. A reversal of ‘(They Long To Be) Close To You,’ (the chorus is even “Oh, tell me why do birds, do they suddenly disappear instead of singing here”), the song builds from a backing of intertwining piano and rhodes, before Pollard delivers the type of lush, intricate, old-school string arrangement that made Natalie Prass such an otherworldly listen. It’s the kind of the song that’s deeply unfashionable, completely out of step with the times, as if it’s by a previously undiscovered artist from the 70s, unearthed and dusted off. But it works because of Prass’ writing and dedicated performance, as well as the subtle complexity of the instrumental parts. Sandwiched between ‘Nothing to Say’ and ‘Ain’t Nobody,’ it becomes even more striking. ‘Nothing to Say’ is the most modern sounding composition on the record, and suggests that Prass could pivot into Jessie Ware-esque modern RnB, if she so desired; whilst the beat driven closer, ‘Ain’t Nobody,’ features a positively nasty synth line by Devonne Harris that could have been lifted off a Daft Punk record. The influences on The Future and the Past are decidedly more modern; be it Janet Jackson and early 90s RnB, or Erykah Badu and D’Angelo (those instrumental breaks at the end of ‘Nothing to Say’ and ‘Ain’t Nobody’ could pass for studio outtakes from the Black Messiah sessions), and Prass cherrypicks stylistic touchstones from these sources to create a beguiling mix.

It’s Prass’ willingness to push herself and her established sound that makes The Future and the Past such a compelling listen. While there’s something undefinable and magical about that debut record, it’s a testament to Prass as an artist and a person that she was willing to cut loose and follow her instincts (her old record label didn’t keep the faith upon hearing the new direction), as it has, undeniably, paid off. And on ‘Ship Go Down,’ she’s made one of the best songs of her career. Co-written with White, it’s a beguiling, confounding listen, that gradually progresses from a strange, stop-start rhythm to a swirling cacophony of serrated guitar, distorted wailing, and thundering bass. It’s the angriest thing Prass has put to tape, even name-checking Trump with its reference to a “wolf in wolf’s clothing,” and shows her in a whole new light, subverting our expectations. There is evolution on The Future and the Past and a real sense that Prass has done what she set out to do: make an album that, like the work of Marvin Gaye, gets people thinking and resolving to take action, all the while shaking their hips to the undeniable groove.