Fabiana Palladino: Fabiana Palladino review – sublime 80s pop innovation meets 21st-century chaos | Music

Describing debut albums as long-awaited is par for the course, but in Fabiana Palladino’s case it’s also perfectly true. It’s been 13 years since she started self-releasing her songs online, and seven since she was announced as the first signing to Paul Institute, a label that seems to share the admirably unhurried approach of its co-founder, Jai Paul.

Few figures in 21st-century pop seem to have achieved so much by doing so little as Paul, who has managed to garner an extraordinary reputation – the Guardian has described him as both “era-defining” and “a once-in-a-lifetime talent” – despite the fact that he’s only released three official singles in a music career that stretches back to 2007. His endorsement carries considerable clout, but Palladino’s output seemed to slow rather than accelerate after she became involved with Paul Institute.

She took to releasing a solitary song every year or two while working as a session musician for the Maccabees, Jessie Ware, Sampha and indeed Paul: she was part of the band performing at a handful of 2023 live shows that, if nothing else, proved that Paul’s mythology has only grown. Demand was such that you couldn’t purchase a ticket; you had to be entered into a lottery to win the right to buy one.

Understated power … Fabiana Palladino. Photograph: XL Recordings

The official line is that Palladino’s eponymous debut album took so long to arrive as a result of its author’s perfectionism, an excuse that’s surprisingly easy to believe when you hear it. It is largely self-produced and fantastically well made. Palladino is the daughter of celebrated session bassist Pino Palladino, and she has clearly made good use of the contacts on her dad’s phone, given his presence here alongside the equally celebrated session drummer Steve Ferrone and arranger Rob Moose, best known for his work with Blake Mills (with whom Palladino Sr made his 2021 album Notes With Attachments).

It’s a situation that you might decry as nepotistic if Fabiana Palladino was a luxuriously appointed dud, but she’s nothing of the sort: the presence of some august blue chip musicians can’t account for how good the songs here are. All 10 boast killer melodies – in a more just world recent single Stay With Me Through the Night would have been a huge hit, and the charts a brighter place for it – and Palladino’s voice has understated power.

Fabiana Palladino: Stay With Me Through the Night – video

Musically, it sets its sights on refracting a series of styles associated with the mid-80s. There’s a nod to the sampled clanks and crashes of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis’s cutting-edge productions for Janet Jackson on Can You Look in the Mirror? and the chugging guitars from the rockier end of Prince’s oeuvre on Shoulda. It isn’t a stretch to imagine I Can’t Dream Anymore soundtracking a love scene in a glossy Hollywood blockbuster of the era.

But for all the knowing signifiers from the age of power-dressing and rolled-up suit sleeves (and mid-80s signifiers come no more knowing than In the Fire’s attempt to restore the tarnished image of synthesised pan-pipes), the album never feels like a retro exercise. There’s a very modern hint of chaos lurking at the edges of its sound: grimy distortion around the beat of Can You Look in the Mirror?, the clangorous, faintly off-key synth sound that underpins In the Fire, the oddly distracted quality to Paul’s guest vocal on I Care, the weird, electronically scrambled vocal that adds a peculiar edge to the slow jam Deeper’s intro.

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The push and pull of the album’s sound – the comfortingly familiar up against modernity; the super-slickness of its mid-80s influences against the more ramshackle approach of 2024 – mirrors a certain push and pull in its lyrics, which depict the conflicting stages of a failing relationship, from icy diffidence to desperate attempts to hold together, often through songs that aren’t as they first appear. Closer initially presents as a lustful come-on, but gradually reveals itself as a dismissal, albeit one delivered in a breathily affecting voice. The protagonist turns out not to be edging closer to a lover, but to a decision to ditch said lover: “I don’t even know if I want you around.” “I care, I care for you,” she sings beseechingly elsewhere, before adding: “I think so, anyway.”

Lyrics aside, nothing else about the album speaks of uncertainty or indecision. Devoid of weak tracks or ideas that don’t gel, it’s an album that sounds as if it was made by someone who knows exactly what she’s doing. You could hold it up as a lesson in the value of taking your time and being selective, in a world where artists – particularly new artists – are encouraged to bombard listeners with a constant barrage of product. Or you could take its appealingly scuffed gloss as symbolic of nothing more than the flowering of an original pop voice: Fabiana Palladino might well be one of 2024’s best debut albums.

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