The title of Nerina Pallot’s seventh studio album sounds like a grand declaration, named after the song of the same name in which she admits “I’m just shambling about I ain’t flowing/not like those people who got it all planned/with their world domination and personal brands”. It’s a useful reminder for those of us who sometimes have curious ideas about musicians, our enthusiasm turning an ordinary geezer into a genius who can do no wrong because of a particular guitar solo, that our heroes are human and not super-human: “we are your people/and this is your song”, Pallot suggests after admitting she can barely remember names.
The concern that we’re immersed in a permanent omni-shambles may have come from the album being made over a three-year stretch due to pandemic woes and seeing the world in a state of disarray. The evocative landscape of “Cold Places” is stoic in the face of loss, and suggests we find the beauty in dark times. The gospel-tinged “Born”, written about “one person in particular who got dealt a very bad hand at a very formative age”, celebrates his existence and acknowledges that we’re all making the best of things but “make a mess of living”. “Master Builder” is a song addressed to the said Master Builder aka the Divine One (as opposed to the chief foreman on a building site); the rulers don’t know what they’re doing, and a factory reset or a battery upgrade is recommended.
This is however far from a gloomy album. “Only The Old Songs” is philosophical in accepting impermanence. The parental “There’s A River” revels in the pleasures of nature and domesticity. The long summer of “The Way We Are” finds joy in being together, after surviving breakdowns, drama and financial difficulties. The carefree “Fun” is an invitation to relax and not worry about the future (as a thank you to Pallot’s husband and to “usher in some good times”). Despite the sentiment in the title, “Don’t Dare (Love Is Hell)” Is 37 seconds of upbeat pop as if extracted from a radio (she plans releasing further snippets of this song on future albums so that eventually listeners may be able to hear the song in its entirety).
If we need comparisons for newcomers, Pallot is close to Kate Bush on “The Way We Are” and Tori Amos on “There’s A River”, but she undoubtedly has her own style and artistic vision. She also chooses some interesting subjects for her songs, and has a distinct point of view. In “Alice At The Beach” she considers what seems like inexplicable mysteries – the story of Alice Blaise (who rescued someone from drowning in 1965; nine years later that rescued person saved the life of Blaise’s husband on the same beach), as well as the 2009 “miracle on the Hudson” (US Airways Flight 1549). “Australia” is an optimistic love song to the lucky country (“it’s where we are going not where we have been”) inspired by missing family overseas. “Mama” is not so much about being a mother but a daughter trying to live up to parental values.
As well as the pandemic, the making of I Don’t Know What I’m Doing was extended by the intricate production process (the album was produced by Pallot with additional work by Andy Chatterley); the time spent and the lovingly applied detail was worth the effort because it’s a great sounding album which keeps the listener’s attention. Pallot says in the sleeve notes that it seems odd that only her name as the artist appears on the record when it’s the sound of so many different people. Musicians include (gulp): Lewis Wright, Alex Bonfanti, Carlos Garcia, Andy Chatterley, Tom Farmer, Camilla Pay, LaDonna Young, Olivia Williams, Ben Castle, Tom Walsh, Nicol Thompson, Sally Herbert, Calina de la Mare, Natalia Bonner, Nicky Sweeney, Kate Robinson, Kathy Gowers, Gillon Cameron, Lucy Wilkins, Howard Gott, Julia Singleton, Rick Koster, Laura Melhuish, Relad Chibah. Vince Greene, Emma Owens, Rob Spriggs, Ian Burdge, Chris Worsey and Sarah Willson.
The album has a wide range from the minimalist acoustic title track to the complex “Cold Places”, which uses auto-tune, back beat and string orchestration. Pallot is a virtuoso pianist, as demonstrated on “Master Builder” and “There’s A River”, and this is frequently complimented by some magic touches – the saxophone on “Fun”, a flash of squiggly synth on “Hold On”, the harp on the laid back Steely Dan chops of “Alice At The Beach”. Pallot says she always tries to write songs “from a spiritual place”, and this is key to her great success on this album.
Note: physical copies of I Don’t Know What I’m Doing (available on CD, vinyl and cassette) include bonus track “Chanson”, a French kind of drama (best experienced vicariously).
Label: Idaho Recordings
Release Date: 17 JUN 2022