“Change came like a hurricane/2020 hit us differently,” sings Nao over wave-like synths on the title track of And Then Life Was Beautiful, “And even though I didn’t want it/the slow life got a hold of me,” she continues. The song serves as an prologue to the rest of the record, which gently takes the hand of its listener to guide them through life’s peaks and troughs – both of which were exaggerated by last year’s Covid-19 lockdowns, during which this album was written.
The third record from east London-born Nao (real name Neo Jessica Joshua) has a softer, more hypnotic sound than the shuffling electronica of her second album Saturn, which was nominated for the 2019 Mercury Prize. Central to Nao’s sound are distinctive vocals, mellifluous in her lower range – as on “Better Friend”, a catchy, Arlo Parks-like commitment to improving in one’s relationships – and unfortunately grating in her upper range, where her voice can sound childlike.
At points – as on “Burn Out”, which springs along with a verve reminiscent of Coloring Book-era Chance the Rapper – this works, rubbing up against the spacey synths and drum pad with a mischievousness that is matched by off-beat vocal rhythms. But at others, such as on the positivity-fuelled title track, her whimsical voice feels as though it is mocking the very words she sings. This strange contradiction leaves the record feeling baseless.
At other times, there is a huge gap in quality between lyrics and instrumentation. On “Nothing’s For Sure”, a feelgood number that kicks with a funky bassline and keenly produced drum track, Nao sings “Go with the flow”, a phrase so overused it’s become trite and meaningless. The pre-chorus of “Little Giants” has a charming sing-song lilt, but the chorus relies on an unoriginal nod to the story of Icarus. “So hold my wing, don’t/Don’t let me fly too close to the sun/Don’t let me fly too close to the sun,” Nao sings in a breathy falsetto, her attempt at emotion undermined by lyrical cliché.
This disconnect is a shame, because there are brilliant instrumental moments on And Then Life Was Beautiful, from the glistening electric guitars of the first track through to the entrancing reverberation of the synths on the final song, “Amazing Grace”. Nao has assembled around her a formidable ensemble of black talent, including experimental New York artist Serpentwithfeet, UK jazz-pop songwriter Lianne La Havas and Nigerian highlife singer Adekunle Gold, and it’s on the tracks featuring these artists that the record is most thrilling. The jaunty rock of “Woman”, featuring La Havas, offers an easygoing foundation on which the two artists sing about female empowerment. Knowing that Nao recorded the song with her newborn daughter strapped to her chest adds a wonderful sensitivity to proceedings.
The hope that new life brings is also the central theme of “Antidote”, the album’s standout track. Gold, who is a superstar in Nigeria and features here, had a daughter born during the pandemic, too. Together, Nao and Gold sing the praises of their daughters: “You take the sun with you when you leave the room”. In describing unadulterated affection, Nao sounds more genuine than anywhere else on the record. The song is warm, with a laid back shuffle and hook-laden chorus. This – pure, uncomplicated love – is the crux of Nao’s admirable, if occasionally twee, positive message.