Zayn Malik finally finds his calling in country – plus the week’s best albums

New era: Zayn Malik wrote his country album on his farm
New era: Zayn Malik wrote his country album on his farm
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ZAYN, Room Under the Stairs ★★★☆☆

Bradford is a long, long way from Nashville, but you wouldn’t think so listening to Room Under the Stairs, the fourth album from Zayn Malik. The former One Direction heartthrob’s pivot from slick RnB to pared-back country is a wise one: the 31-year-old’s whispery vocals and shy demeanour seem far better suited to these tender musings on love and growing up than his previous solo work, which attempted to establish him as the bad boy of the group – his departure in 2015, said to be a response to stress and anxiety caused by their unprecedented fame and non-stop touring schedule, did lead to their indefinite hiatus, after all.

Almost 10 years on since they called it a day, it’s easy to forget just how dominant a cultural force One Direction were: brought together by Simon Cowell on The X Factor, the group (made up of Malik, Harry Styles, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne and Niall Horan) have sold more than 70 million records worldwide, won seven Brit Awards, and – in a rarity for Britons – were equally successful across the pond.

Malik was always the introvert – I can remember seeing them live in Manchester in 2013, watching him sit and glower in the corner of the stage while the other four boys fooled and joked around – which partly explains the strangeness of his post-1D career. Unlike Styles, who has gone on to become arguably the world’s biggest male popstar, Malik (who now refers to himself in the singular, à la Beyoncé or Prince) has had a slew of relative flops.

His last album, ironically titled Nobody is Listening, only reached number 17 in the UK charts (in the US, it lingered at Number 44). Tonight, he will take to the stage at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire to perform his first ever solo concert. The jitters hardly fill a listener with confidence, but Room Under the Stairs suggests that he has finally found his musical calling.

A cynic would point to the music industry’s current obsession with country – Bey, Lana Del Rey and Post Malone have all recently crossed over – as the sole reason for Malik’s transformation, but it hints at a self-confidence that his solo work hasn’t previously possessed. He’s spent the past several years living in rural Pennsylvania – not far from the smalltown that gave us country-pop titan Taylor Swift – as he co-parents his daughter, Khai, with supermodel ex-girlfriend Gigi Hadid.

Malik’s new stripped-back lifestyle, filled with farms, horses and sprawling greenland, lends the collection of 15 songs – which touch on falling in and out of love, personal growth and insecurity – both authority and heart. The supple touch of leading US producer Dave Cobb, who has worked with Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile and Jason Isbell, sets Room Under the Stairs up as a nostalgic continuation of America’s rich, diverse country tradition.

Shoot at Will is a sterile ballad about being lured back into the past – “A dream gone bad / ‘Cause it feels like history’s pullin’ me back” –  that immediately brings to mind Stapleton’s chart-topper You Should Probably Leave, while What I Am grapples with loneliness, only possible to drown out with strong liquor (“I’ve been drinking absinthe”) and memories of happier days gone by. Malik’s voice is at its strongest here, his soaring falsetto rich and mature, finally going some way to hint at the real man behind the fame thrust upon him as a teenager.

Birds on a Cloud offers further candid insight to his faltering mental state and alcohol dependance (“So when I wake up today / Hoping I don’t feel the same as I did last night / S–t faced, not knowing which way is up”), and is saved from being too melancholy by the upbeat tempo and plucky strings that hint at the existence of a brighter future. His voice has never sounded better, but it’s the lyrics that let the album down overall: Stardust, a cheesy ode to falling head over heels, centres on the chorus “Feels like stardust / Floatin’ all around us / Shootin’ right across the big black sky”; Something in the Water has him “Drippin’ in that old school love / Pour me some, feelings got me goin’ numb”.

Only time will tell if Room Under the Stairs finds an audience outside of the avid, still-loyal Directioner fan base, but it definitely deserves to – Malik’s voice washes over you in slow, sensual waves, backed by instrumentals that sound more at home in dingy dive bars than brightly-lit stadiums. Who knows – with a better writing team, his next album may be a thing of beauty. Poppie Platt

Cage the Elephant, Neon Pill ★★★★☆

Kentucky’s own Cage the Elephant have come a long way since their garage rock debut in 2008. After becoming a staple of shaggy-haired festivals, brothers Matt (vocals) and Brad Shultz (rhythm guitarist), Nick Bockrath (lead guitar), Daniel Tichenor (bass), Jared Champion (drums), and Matthan Minster (guitar, keys, backing vocals), have developed into a funky forefront of indie rock. Following their terrifically vibrant but introspective Grammy-winning 2019 album Social Cues, the band return from a five-year hiatus with Neon Pill.

As rock struggles to find a place within popular music, bands like Vampire Weekend have found success with a kind of summer-tinted jamming. Cage the Elephant bring a similar vibe to their latest record, on which every track could be a single. As soon as the energetic Hifi (True Light) blasts out, we are treated to space-age psychedelic (Rainbow, Float into the Sky) and pumping love songs that could belong in Bowie’s galaxy (“you are more vibrant than the Technicolour flower bloom”).

Despite its toe-tapping choruses, the band attempts to deal with personal anxieties and struggles. Social Cues was a head-on attempt from Matt Shultz to deal with the aftermath of his divorce, including a public arrest in 2023 (for gun charges, to which he pleaded guilty). Neon Pill finds the frontman in a similarly vulnerable mental state. The brothers lost their father at the height of the pandemic, and their grief is palpable. Out Loud, the album’s one piano ballad, feels like a cry for help: “I can barely breathe, whom I’m tryna be, I’m still tryna figure it out”. Even songs like their single Good Time combine upbeat rhythms with nightmarish dread (”too shy to share my tears in dreams, I scream”).

Sometimes, Cage the Elephant’s lyrics can veer into a teen angst that jars against their middle-aged image: “I don’t want to play those games, will we ever be the same?”. But when they sound this good, they can just about get away with it. Ollie Macnaughton 

Also out: Billie Eilish’s Hit Me Hard and Soft, reviewed by Neil McCormick

Best Songs of the Week

By Poppie Platt

Childish Gambino, Little Foot Big Foot
Donald Glover has finally grown bored of making high-concept TV shows (Swarm, Atlanta) and switched back to his rap alter ego Childish Gambino – for now, at least. Those expecting his usual blistering polemic – showcased in 2018’s Grammy-winning mega-hit This is America – might be slightly baffled, though, to hear the toe-tapping, hoedown-ready Little Foot Big Foot. Luckily, the lyrics, which cover losing a father at a young age and being sucked into crime, are as candid as ever.

Kate Hudson, Gonna Find Out
At 45, the Hollywood actress has decided to channel the passion of her breakout character – “Band-Aid” Penny Lane from 2000’s Almost Famous – and pivot into music. Taken from her debut album, Glorious, which is released tomorrow, Gonna Find Out is a slice of old-school bluegrass, Hudson’s voice a gravelly, raspy surprise delight.

King Hannah (featuring Sharon Van Etten), Big Swimmer
Liverpool duo King Hannah (Hannah Merrick and Craig Whittle) sound more Mississippi than Merseyside, their lilting vocals and melancholy instrumentals supported here by the talents of New Jersey indie singer Sharon Van Etten as they sing about desperately trying to keep afloat.

Lip Critic, In the Wawa (Convinced I Am God) 
My friends are growing bored of me harping on about how fantastic New York electronic-punks Lip Critic are, but after watching them tear up Brixton’s Windmill last night I’m choosing to embrace the hype. Their incendiary debut Hex Dealer is out tomorrow, and this snarling, viciously jumpy track is a perfect introduction to their music.

Moby (featuring Benjamin Zephaniah), Where Is Your Pride?
Moby celebrates the late Birmingham poet on this propulsive spoken-word track covering his usual bugbears: the environment, veganism, justice. But Zephaniah’s powerful delivery, lines spat over a bass-driven break beat, retain interest, as he asks a series of probing questions: “Where is your future?”

Role Model, Deeply Still in Love
An early contender for song of the summer from American singer-songwriter and former rapper Role Model. A deliciously smooth riff and catchy lyrics – “Well I heard that you might’ve found somebody new / I still can’t swallow it, but I think I’m proud of you” – have made it the hottest track on TikTok at the minute, and after just one listen, you’ll be humming along for days.

The Lovely Eggs, Nothing/Everything
Fans of the whimsical musings of Belle & Sebastian or Camera Obscura will lap up this witty send-up of the mundanity of everyday domestic life, taken from the Lancaster lo-fi duo’s (made up of husband-and-wife David Blackwell and Holly Ross) new album Eggsistentialism.

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