ALBUM REVIEW: Samuel Nicholson – ‘Birthday Suit’

Artwork for Samuel Nicholson’s ‘Birthday Suit’ - Samuel Nicholson sitting in front of a gold curtain holding five pink balloons

Samuel Nicholson, a staple of the London music circuit, returns to lay things bare on the aptly titled third full-length Birthday Suit. Shining a light on his own lived experience of romance through his own impassioned brand of left-field indie folk, the Edinburgh native has crafted one heck of a cathartic release.

After recording the record’s bulk at 123 Studios in Peckham, late night shifts back in his own flat saw the addition of overdubs, deconstructions and reconstructions; developments that saw Nicholson celebrating his own quirks, particularly with regard to that dreaded dating game: “I loved the idea of writing an album that rejected the odd ritual we adopt of disguising our flaws and malice when we’re trying to find a soulmate,” he states “and instead found power in honesty and candour.” As Birthday Suit alludes, it’s best to be unapologetically yourself.

Fittingly, by way of bedroom indie’s greatest acts, there’s a raw obscurity to Nicholson’s tales and handling of his voice, performance and style. At times an off-kilter vintage warble, then nearing too close to the mic in a frantic panic, or a fumbled charming folk player in a pub corner. For starters, Nicholson stutters with a quizzical “this is my—wait where is my, what is my—who is my, what is my use?” on the title track, before juggling the serious with the playful in his realisation: “to be kinder than I do, stubborn and thoughtless / And oh, I think I’m an artist!”

As a sufferer from panic attacks and recently receiving an autism diagnosis, these vignettes that dip in and out of the album’s runtime maintain Nicholson’s often humorous self-awareness in powerful moments of vulnerability, catching himself in the act, like the hilariously casual “Well, I was swearing at the blessing…” (New Blood For Your Christening), or “Oh I’m a scream at a wedding! / The wrong song at a funeral!” on Birthday Presents Forever. These interjections, much like the short spoken-word post-production interludes that shape the album’s flow and process, go some way to show the working through of his own identity, role in relationships, and as a songwriter.

Likewise, Nicholson’s underlying sardonic, self-aware tone often gets entwined with the instrumentals. Even when you feel you’ve found yourself afloat in the calming balm of Black Dog Funeral, a midway pace change sees drum and bass foresee a fuzzy solo, popping and fizzing to drive the drama. Then, psychedelic lead licks dig into a whimsical rabbit hole to a tale of drugged-fuelled excess away from the dull 9-to-5 slathered in dreamy poolside drip, adding an even greater nonchalance to any of its negative consequences. “We can do no wrong”. Oh, Gummi.

Coming and going drum rolls, bass lines and cheeky riffs brightly tinge various passages, keeping the listener enthralled by left turns that send genre tropes into freefall. As an apt axe-slinger in an indie rock guise, Nicholson shifts abruptly from formulate chord sequences to full-scale neck-slaying, like the washed-out, uncanny calming natures of Ruben Nielsen’s playing. A signature understated chord progression here, then a rip-roaring take on the harder rock guitar worship that Nicholson’s dad raised him on there. This is no more evident than on God Loves a Trier, where the hammer-ons ring as gushingly as the demonstration of love to a partner. Or even the noodling-from-another-dimension on Fooling Around, while monosyllabic vocal deliveries across Heavy Metal T-Shirt throttle, startle and explode with character.

With closer Random Action Hero, hazy vocals, brass instruments and guitar overlays make tiny tears in what feels like a relaxed jaunt, before the declaration “So, I’ll summon some charisma…” builds towards a passion eruption. But for all the album’s swerves this way and that, Birthday Suit’s naked confessionary is best summed up in its glacial, reflective denouement: “Samuel Robert William Nicholson, undone by your tongue.” Stark by name, stark by nature. That’s exactly what Samuel Nicholson does best.

For fans of: Alex G, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Wednesday

‘Birthday Suit’ by Samuel Nicholson is released on 9th June.

Words by Elliot Burr

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