Last year was tricky. To the global pandemic add a major breakup and a baby – events that shaped And Then Life Was Beautiful, a gamechanging third album by this Grammy- and Mercury-nominated soul singer. Since her debut in 2016, Nao has combined aerated, spun-sugar tones – think Aaliyah, but with east London glottal stops – with eclectic backings.
ATLWB feels like a step up, detailing an emotional journey that refreshes tired tropes with hard-won insight and musical self-assurance. Not settling for unhappiness is the theme of album taster Messy Love. Even better is the 90s-leaning Glad That You’re Gone, which piles heavenly harmonies on to Nao’s deceptively featherlight vocal. Tremulous strings and a restrained guitar solo add to the feeling of classy unconventionality here.
Eager to pick and mix source material, she is bang on trend with a mainstream-facing Afrobeat track – Antidote, featuring the Nigerian high life singer Adekunle Gold – in which the optimism of new parenthood powers a love song. Even the album’s obligatory piano ballad – Wait – manages to dodge cliche. Nao’s voice slips down from a celestial soprano into her lower register without grandstanding, echoing the album’s unshowy skilfulness.