With “Nine,” the mysterious London-based alt-R&B collective Sault has added another layer to their mystique by making this new album — incredibly, their fifth in just over two years — available for just 99 days. Free downloads can be found on their website and vinyl is available from Bandcamp (and you can even stream the whole thing on Instagram), so it’s not like it’ll be gone forever. But although the get-it-before-it’s-gone tactic is not new — it was used twice last year for voters’-rights benefit compilations in the U.S., among other examples — it is yet another way that this spotlight-averse group continually defies convention while delivering powerful, confrontational lyrics and messaging in the context of angular, innovative R&B.
As is usually the case with Sault, that messaging is Black-centric and racially based, and forceful without being dogmatic or too in-your-face. This time, the focus is on life in the council estates (the U.K. equivalent of American housing projects) that some of the group’s members were raised in, as well as the gang violence and substance abuse that plagues so many of them.
Indeed, the album opens with a brief chant — counterintuitively titled “Haha,” its lyrics are, “Revolution has come, you all put down the guns” — before lurching into the grinding groove of “London Gangs,” setting off the spare musical vibe of the first half of the album. Unexpectedly, “Nine” initially evokes the stripped-down sound of the group’s debut, “5,” much more than the lush, at times dance-oriented vibe of their last two (both of which were titled “Untitled”). Several songs have throbbing, distorted bass riffs embellished with driving drums and overlapping vocals and effects; then, characteristically, they change direction, with the remarkably versatile group offering up several previously unexplored styles as well as new variations on older ones.
There’s a light R&B groove on “Bitter Streets”; “Alcohol” is an Erykah Badu/D’Angelo-esque saunter; the title track is practically power pop, with a roving bassline and gently phased vocals and guitars; and the closing “Light’s in Your Hands” is a gorgeous, almost Andra Day-style inspirational ballad, complete with a backing chorus, that then shifts into one of their trademark jazzy grooves.
But part of Sault’s ethos is never to let the listener get too comfortable: Just when you’re settling into a sumptuous groove or melody, they’ll jar you out of complacency with a harrowing spoken-word passage about race or violence or stereotypes, or simply a sudden change of musical direction — this is a group that doesn’t want you to get comfortable on their watch, doesn’t want to let you think everything’s okay, even briefly, when clearly it isn’t. And while that intentionally short attention span doesn’t always make for an ideal listening experience — there are several songs, or at least parts of songs, we wish went on a lot longer — it’s hard not to respect the stance.
And there’s little ambivalence about that stance: The lyrics are usually intentionally spare and repetitive, so the point can’t be missed. “Alcohol, look what I’ve done”; “The pain is real”; “Michael’s Story” is a brief, heartbreaking spoken-word account of a man recalling learning about his father’s murder.
But it’s not without humor. Like the previous album’s fake-wokeness diatribe “You Know You Ain’t,” this one has “You From London?,” which begins with a rap from Little Simz that gives way to (apparently) the same vocalist doing a hilarious parody of a Black Californian accent, spewing obnoxious stereotypes about British people over a jazzy groove: “Y’all goin’ to see the Queen? What’s she like? … Y’all eat crumpets and stuff? … I hear it rains there a lot… Lemme see your teeth!”
Who exactly is in Sault is intentionally undefined, but a dive into the albums’ credits confirm that it’s largely masterminded by songwriter-producer Inflo (Dean Josiah Cover), who has worked with Little Simz, Michael Kiwanuka and Jungle, along with singer Cleo Sol (Cleopatra Nikolic) or Kadeem Clarke on several others. How they manage to keep such a low profile — let alone pay for five, not-cheap-to-record full-length albums in two years when they’re giving away a large percentage of their recorded music — is perhaps the biggest mystery of all.
But as with all things Sault, the point isn’t who or how; it’s what and why.