Sad Cities album cover
Sad Cities

Sally Shapiro

Italians Do It Better

Pseudonymous disco diva Sally Shapiro was a cult-favorite torch-bearer for nu-disco when she emerged in the mid ’00s with Disco Romance, a worthwhile stop on the path that runs from Fever-era Kylie Minogue to Jessie Ware in What’s Your Pleasure mode. But while her impact and legacy might have been rendered a bit blurry by Shapiro’s reticent nature — notoriously press-shy and stage-averse, she’s lived her best life as more of a phantom than a pop star — Shapiro and production partner Johan Agebjörn clearly felt that their 2016 retirement wasn’t the final note they wanted to go out on. (Oddly fitting that their “last” song at the time was an ode to breakup ambivalence titled “If You Ever Wanna Change Your Mind.”) Thankfully, Sad Cities captures a heightened continuation of Shapiro’s themes — romance, loneliness, the difficulty in figuring out which of those two modes feels the most comfortable — that makes its bummer disco feel like a series of emotional fixations that a steady beat gives tension when the voice can’t (or won’t). That alone-in-a-crowd atmosphere gives Agebjörn’s Scandi-Italo sounds a weight that does an end-run around nostalgia-as-comfort: these songs don’t just recall the pulsing melodicism of Saint Etienne or Pet Shop Boys or even Madonna, but the feeling of turning to those artists because you’re trying to overcome a bad time. It’s the era as it happened, complete with an anxious take on New Jack Swing’s bounce (“Sad City”) and a midtempo immersion in adult-contempo guitar-and-sax plaintiveness (“Down This Road”). But it works because Shapiro’s hushed, limited-range voice still evokes immediacy through its simplicity, and that clicks with Agebjörn’s encyclopedic knack for finding the most resonant point on the Moroder-to-Kavinsky continuum to complement it. It’s a sound that’s less enamored with the novelty of sounding “retro” than it is in finding out just how and why this particular aesthetic can still capture heartache like it does. Turns out there are a lot of possible answers — in a ballad that sounds like half-speed ABBA put through a Michael Mann filter (“Dulcinea”), a brink-of-darkwave hybrid that makes a dying relationship sound as intense as a cyberpunk shootout (“Fading Away”), and a song that does for the fading yet tenaciously aging vibe of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” what Top Gun: Maverick did for the movie that made it famous (“Tell Me How”).

Nate Patrin

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