Nabihah Iqbal ‘Dreamer’ (Ninja Tune)

Inner Visions

Pull up a chair. Pop on your reading glasses and let’s browse Nabihah Iqbal’s CV. Under her previous name, Throwing Shade, she composed for the Turner Prize and collaborated with Wolfgang Tillmans as part of his Tate Modern exhibition. She sampled Shanghai street sounds for an immersive installation in which beams of light jumped through mirrors. She is currently guest-directing the Brighton Festival, maybe even as you read this sentence.

What else? NTS Radio host. Trained barrister. Karate black belt. Actual astronaut. Alright, I made that last one up, but the others are true. Based on such a winning career, this London producer ought to be as cocky as Kid Rock snorting lines of desiccated Kid Rock on National Kid Rock Day. So why does her second album ‘Dreamer’ sound so humble? So intimate? So poised that if you batted an eyelash, the atmosphere could smash into a thousand pieces?

‘Dreamer’ was actually ready a few years ago. Then, at the start of 2020, the unthinkable happened. Iqbal’s studio was broken into, and she was robbed of the gear and the work that was to comprise her follow-up to 2017’s ‘Weighing Of The Heart’. She then found herself in Pakistan over lockdown due to a family tragedy, which separated her from her usual thinkpads of Logic and Ableton.

Stranded in Karachi, she had to find new creative avenues. Enter the “Lockdown Herbalist”, an Instagram series exploring her grandparents’ culinary heritage. Finding comfort in zeera, haldi and ajwain – cumin, turmeric and bishop’s weed, for non-Urdu speakers.

Such nose-tickling curiosity led here. A work of dreamy pop, saturated with all the burned colour of paprika, infused with the kick of kadi patta. So let’s start with the promo tracks, the fancy ones with videos that precede this album’s release.

The clattering Balearic beats of ‘Sunflower’ feel like 808 State literally on rails. “Feel the power,” Iqbal says flatly as she imagines falling in love in the shadow of its titular flower. Like the video, the music is holiday-snap faded, desperately melancholic, with a bucolic wash of synth sunshine. And she delivers her words so matter-of-factly, as if somehow afraid of getting caught in the emotion.

Then there’s ‘This World Couldn’t See Us’, cut through with memories. “Let your emptiness overflow,” she intones with distinct iciness. Its video is a tribute to cities at night, a collage of neon and concrete streets, and at one moment we meet a naked statue with a tiny head. All the while, Iqbal dreams of a distant countryside. The breathy euphoria of electronic trio Real Lies comes to mind, while the new wave stomp and Peter Hook-worthy bassline are caffeine-pepped sisters to ‘Zone 1 To 6000’ from her debut album.

The title track is as shoegaze as it comes, but denser production provides contrast. Innocent pop melodies drown in a gossamer veil of ambience before a glorious surf guitar arrives to save us all. If Iqbal’s previous work had nods to the Pet Shop Boys, here the pet shop is long closed. Cobwebbed over. Left to the elements, with wildflowers carpeting its abandoned cages. It’s irresistible stuff.

The guitars provide so much emotional core, whether unfocused and wavy on ‘A Tender Victory’ or introspective and serious on the liminal ‘Lilac Twilight’. Iqbal opens the album with the longest track, ‘In Light’. The songs with the fancy videos will get the headlines, but this flower-haired meander through misty uncertainty is impressive. “In light,” goes the blurry vocal, over and over, while gliding chords slow-dive over fabulously foggy guitar. She turns shoegaze into shoe-stare off into the distance. Filtered Insta-memories, an audio sigh of times gone.

Even in upbeat mode, the album tingles. While not returning to the more digital bangers of her earlier career, house tracks ‘Gentle Heart’ and ‘Sky River’ nudge us into techno territory – the former with a snaking arpeggio and a moment under the strobes, the latter letting a drum kit spasm on the dancefloor, whistles aloft. But while the beats pump, the flow is gloopy. A warm, orange-coloured liquid oozes from every pore. “The streetlights burn bright with something new,” she says under the reverb muffle of ‘Gentle Heart’. Everything is saturated.

A burglary and a lockdown, then Nabihah Iqbal stopping to smell the spices. And the herbs. And the trees. This talented polymath will reel off many more CV pages, but this album is front-page material. Nothing can replicate the grief, the displacement, and ultimately the hope that led to the creation of an album like ‘Dreamer’. I bet she’s an astronaut – she’s just not telling anyone.

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