Introducing Shamir, The Cool Kid Channeling Millennial Angst Into Bold Pop Music
Bursting open with a scurry of whimsical piano countered by an attack of sharp, clattered keys, Shamir's third full length album, Revelations, is as tender as it is combative. "Games," the bright yet foreboding track that opens the album, perfectly embodies Shamir's current sound. As much of a protest song against the corporate interests of the music industry as it is a confessional song articulating personal grievances, "Games," is minimalist and focused, yet raw and full of scope. Like the rest of the album, it paints a very distinctive portrait of the musician who delivered it, and it doesn't hold back.
In a phone interview with Bustle, Shamir explained the candid sound at the heart of Revelations, starting with a relatable anecdote about how "Games," was developed. "I wrote and recorded that song while I was drinking a whole bottle of wine," Shamir discloses, "And that vocal take was one take after I played the piano and it was just rolling. So it feels very real, like, me just drunkenly singing about how frustrated I am. It was very liberating – it was brought to you by a bottle of Merlot."
With the exception of Millennial anthem, "'90s Kids," which was co-written with Theresa Harris, Shamir wrote and produced the entirety of Revelations, as well as performing every instrument that you hear on it. Not only does that give the album a very clear sense of agency and identity, it also makes it swell with a sense of his aforementioned liberation. "I just wanted all the performances to be real and to be in the moment, so it’s a little bit more tied together, you know?"
That sense of reclaiming agency and identity has been wonderfully apparent in the 23 year-old's music ever since he independently released the his surprise lo-fi pop album, Hope, in April. Recorded on a 4-track, in his bedroom, over a single weekend, the album was released as a direct response to the music industry after having been dropped from his former label, XL Recordings. "The music industry is dying," Shamir explains while talking about the difficulties heaped upon young musicians, "artists these days aren’t even allowed to be artists. You just have to be moneymakers. You know, it’s like, if your first record doesn’t sell a million copies then the label is not going to deal with you, and that’s sad. An artist needs to grow. Not everyone hits a home run at the beginning."
Hope's scaled back, minimalist sound was radically different to the disco soaked pop that throbbed from Ratchet, his 2015 debut album, and Northtown, his 2014 EP. But the change in sound comes across as a fundamental one — a sonic growth as natural as ageing. Which is possibly why the realness of Revelations comes through so strongly. The album is uncompromising in its scathing observations set to bittersweet melodies, but on songs like "Blooming," "Float," and "Astral Plane," it's also full of vulnerable introspection, too, that feels more jubilant than sour in recognition of sadness. Shamir has had the space to grow, and he's hitting casual home runs all over this album.
As a result, every song on Revelations feels intimate and personal, as though they're late night phone calls fed into music. And as a whole, the album defies certain definition because of it. While there's the unmistakable influence of '90s alternative rock with a "female vibe," as Shamir describes it — bands like Black Tambourine and Velocity Girl are highlighted as two of his favorites — listen close enough and you'll also hear the hushed intensity of Elliott Smith, the vibrant rhythms of The Ronnettes, and the boundary-pushing rawness of country singer Loretta Lynn.
However, those reference points feel like organic accidents, rather than deliberate tributes. The result of an artist with musical tastes as eclectic as their sound. "I started off doing country music," Shamir confesses, "the country side is just completely instilled in me. It’s just like second nature. So even just my song writing style is like country. Those influences are just in my DNA at this point."
Which is to say that Shamir's music really speaks for itself, with or without fitting the default constraints of musical genre. In a world so obsessed with definitions, it feels even more crucial that Shamir's output as an artist defies so many. Especially when conversation surrounding the definitions of Shamir's gender identity and sexuality can be so overbearing in the media that it can eclipse the more important conversation regarding his music. Something that Shamir appears to have understandably grown a little weary of, "it’s great to touch on these topics and it’s fine to speak on it but also at the same time it shouldn’t be the focal point," he reveals, "because at that point it isn’t representation, it’s exploitation."
It's a stigma known by every musician that isn't straight, white, cis-male, or fitting any other default conventions or tropes of the music industry — your 'otherness' tends to be used as a descriptor for your music. Bands made up of women, for instance get labeled as an all-girl band, while a band made up of men, will simply be called a band. Shamir agrees "It’s great to put an all-girl band out there and give them that platform and that representation but it’s like, at this point we should be past all-girl band, for a tagline. We are past that. It’s 2017, almost 2018 — like, hello, you can just say a great band instead of an all-girl band."
Though Shamir might exist beyond the tidy confines of simplistic genre traits or default identifiers, it's clear that he's a rising, definitive voice. Songs like "Straight Boy," may result directly from personal frustrations, (such as being inspired by the, "weird, false sense of pride and toxic masculinity," that he observed in "a lot of the straight, white dudes," in his life,) but they sound like anthems on a larger scale, reflecting the frustrations of a whole generation and the toxicity of an entire society.
That's clear for much of Revelations, but made blatant on the song, "90s Kids." Here, Shamir tackles the unfair Millennial stereotypes that have come to define our generation versus the "paralyzing anxiety," of our reality. The resentment for Millennials, he believes, comes from growing up "in a digital information age." Shamir explains:
I think that people automatically assume that gives us a leg up and it doesn’t. Information is so saturated that it’s kind of even harder to decipher what’s the truth or not. On top of that, the economy has let us down. In America, education is ridiculously expensive, to the point where it’s like, is it even worth it, you know? And it’s really sad that something as simple as paying for higher education is near impossible. But we’re supposed to be grateful because we have Google.
Tentatively requesting that we "put a drink in the air for the college girls and boys," on "90s Kids," it seems to safe to say that we should be putting our glasses up for Shamir. Whether it's providing boisterous glimpses of sympathy during a crisis on the upbeat, "Her Story," ("when you have to choose, between what's right and what's scaring you,") or rejecting habitual cycles of stress so we can instead "learn to love ourselves," on "Cloudy," Shamir is exactly what we all deserve to hear to cushion the blow of modern times.
And suffice to say, these songs and feelings are best enjoyed in the same spirit with which Revelations was apparently conceived — putting the world to rights over a damn fine bottle of Merlot.