V V Brown….didn’t she have that song ‘Shark in the Water’? Deliverer of soulful, poppy, mostly harmless R&B? Yes, yes she did, but brace yourselves, because this is a whole new V V: after releasing her last album Travelling Like The Light, she recorded the follow-up Lollipops and Politics, decided she wasn’t happy with it and left her record company. Since then, she has launched a fashion line and her own record company, as well as mercilessly murdering her old musical persona. Such artistic bravery in the face of a commercially promising future is beguiling, much like her new, independently produced studio album, Samson & Delilah.
For the uninitiated, Samson and Delilah are Biblical characters whose tale embodies female/male power struggles: a powerful judge who delivered crushing judgements on the Philistines, Samson had superhuman strength which the Philistines were determined to overcome. Samson loved Delilah and once the Philistines had finished bribing her, she had gained his trust, discovered his power lay in his hair and ordered a buzzcut pronto. Samson had his eyes gauged out and Delilah went to Vegas. Probably. Maybe Brown is Delilah, or Samson, or both: the intrigue of this album lies in trying to work out which.
More intriguing still is Brown’s vocal delivery for much of Samson & Delilah, displaying strong operatic ambition which, once again, is utterly different from Travelling Like The Light. The 1877 opera of the Samson and Delilah story was surely an inspiration, not least of all in the sweeping drama of opener ‘Substitute for Love’, with lines like ‘I’ll be your heroin/Put me inside your veins and let me in’. The song is a love letter to dangerous obsession, Samson’s for Delilah; Brown invites you to give yourself over to her in the absence of love. It’s all brooding enticement and slow foreboding drumming, a great opening mission statement.
‘Substitute for Love’ and second track ‘Nothing Really Matters’ makes for two songs which share titles with tracks from Madonna’s Ray of Light album. Probably coincidental, it’s an interested comparison to make: Ray of Light was a watershed moment for Madonna’s career, where she eschewed commercial sounds in favour of artistic growth (still sold a bucketload mind), as did Brown in walking away from her recording contract. In Madonna’s ‘Substitute for Love’, she sings about finding a substitute, whereas Brown is the substitute, suggesting she is willfully avoiding love or mocking love: hey there Delilah.
Conversely, on the single ‘Samson’ Brown defies Delilah, urging Samson to ‘get up and rise’. In the video Delilah sheds tears of regret after cutting his hair and there’s a serpent slithering about in the background, the femme fatale’s calling card. Brown clearly enjoys taking both sides in this argument, finding parts of herself in both perhaps. ‘Samson’ is another slice of sweeping drama, with stronger drums and metallic rattlings which bring to mind Sauron’s fiery work pits in Lord of the Rings or at least a murderous lunatic shaking cutlery.
As the record progresses, the music loosens: Brown relaxes her delivery somewhat, the lyrics become clearer, the melodies catchier, with ‘The Apple’ sounding almost like you might expect it on the radio (although at this stage it seems unlikely that Brown’s taking a punt at that anymore): amidst electronic dance beats and whirling sirens, she sings ‘don’t patronise me, I’m not your clown’, a diatribe against her previous employers perhaps. Brown is expelling demons, coming out the other side into the light: the last track on the album is tellingly entitled ‘Beginning’, featuring a smattering of acoustic guitar for the first time after a plethora of electronica beats and drums.
Samson & Delilah could be one of many things: the autopsy of a failed relationship, a cry of freedom against the restraints of commercial expectations or perhaps solely a musical exploration of the Biblical couple. There are just enough strong tracks here for it not to matter too much which one it may be, but trying to work it out for yourself certainly makes the listen more rewarding.
You can download ‘Samson & Delilah’ for free via VV Brown’s website.