Album Review: The Dreaming Room

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

For many, modern popular music is typically comprised of a catchy chorus, a compressed bassline and relatively mild lyrical concepts. Birmingham singer/songwriter, Laura Mvula and her second album, The Dreaming Room [2016] offer a firm departure from that stereotype.

Laura Mvula (2016)

I should come clean; I have not listened to this album to the same extent as some of the other musical pieces I have written (which can be found under TPIN’s Culture section). That said, this album grabbed me in a way that few other records have – in actual fact, I’ve only been consumed by a record in the same way as this once: Tame Impala’s Currents, my all-time favourite.

The first thing I love about this album, and something that perplexes me about it even after multiple listens, is that it doesn’t really have a genre – or that it is a collection of multiple different genres. It spans Jazz, Alternative Rock, Soul, R&B and Electronic, all whilst featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra as a backing band – truly amazing, genre-defying music.

Add to that, the themes of the record in large part focus on the breakdown of Mvula’s marriage, her relationship with her mental health and the question of race. Throughout the record, she collaborates with some fantastic artists; Nile Rodgers, who is, for my money, the world’s best rhythm guitarist, and Wretch 32, who takes a verse in the album’s penultimate song People, on the struggles of people of colour in the modern age.

The album opens with a 1m 20s introductory song, Who I Am, which outlines the basic concepts of the piece before jumping into the album’s best track, featuring Nile Rodgers, Overcome. Overcome is fantastic. Everyone I've shown this song to has said they love it within the first 20 seconds. I defy anyone reading this to listen to those opening 20 seconds and not be captured by that song (a little longer in the video version of the song linked below). Rodgers’ guitar work in typical fashion adds so much to the song that otherwise could not be captured by a journeyman session musician. Towards the end of the track, the London Philharmonic Orchestra comes to the forefront, really topping this song off and whetting the appetite of the listener to experience the rest of the record.

Next, Bread expresses some of Mvula’s feelings following her separation from her husband. This track is notable for its dragging drum sounds, which convey a sense of weariness and lethargy not found elsewhere on the record. Similarly, the following track, Lucky Man, seems to take a look at her mental health struggles following her marital collapse, again, with a dragging drum part that continues the exhaustion from before. These two tracks contrast Overcome massively and noticeably shift the pace of the record to a more personal, introspective and sombre foot.

That pace is recovered in Let Me Fall, which details her desire for moving on from the lethargy and sadness of a failed marriage, and her aspiration to fall in love once more. The music on this track backs up the lyrical message, which a far more expansive melodic range, accompanied by upbeat drumming and a two-chord interchange in the verses. Kiss My Feet, the subsequent track, looks at the process of moving on whilst bogged down with mental health issues, but also the desire to rekindle the feeling between her and her former husband.

Onto another highlight of the album, Show Me Love, Mvula reminisces the time she spent with her husband in a different light to previous tracks, which can be summed up by the first line in the chorus:

“If it wasn’t real, then why does it hurt so bad?”

This track doesn’t offer a lot musically, it is as close to an acapella track as you’re going to find on this record, but the lack of accompaniment offers Mvula the opportunity to exercise her vocal ability, which is superb.

Following Show Me Love, is a short orchestral interlude called Renaissance Moon, before my second favourite track of the album, Angel. The track opens with a harmonised introduction, before moving into a section with steelpans, which offers a new sound to the record. Throughout this track, the vocal melody seeks to stick in the mind whilst wandering through the scales – not least in the chorus, where Mvula’s vocal range and ability is demonstrated magnificently.

Mvula Crosses the Traditional Genre Boundaries

The lyrical content of this song, while still focused on her past marriage, takes a broadly optimistic approach. In the opening line, she asks if they could still be friends and that she cherishes the time they spent together. However, what makes this song special is the coda at the end:

“If this is where we part forever,

I wish you the world of happiness,

And everything you want,

I will always remember,

The memories and journeys”

This lyrical section begins to overlap, harmonise and combine as it repeats, making for a terrific finale to the track, all of which is underpinned by a wonderful harpsichord-piano duo in the background. This song is also one of the most well-produced songs on the album, with a production value better than most other songs out there.

Moving towards the end of the album, we find the second featured track, People with Wretch 32. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, this song focuses on the plight of people of colour in the modern age. The texture of this track shifts throughout, with verses that sound rather aggressive, noting tribulations facing people of colour, contrasted by choruses of harmonising horns that denote a peaceful serenity, with lyrics that assure POC that they are “a wonder”. Additionally, Wretch 32’s section contains some interesting race-class observations:

“Life’s a bitch, oh, life’s a bitch,

Depending on what breed you is,

You’re middle class or you’re class-A selling,

You’re selling dreams from a living nightmare,

I’m gonna shine ‘cause my people died here,”

People looks at race and class through the lens of historical oppression and future liberation. While a departure from the other themes of the record, it is still good value for its place on the album.

The next track is not so much a song as it is a skit. Nan appears to be a phone-call between Laura Mvula and her Grandmother (her Nan). The call catches Mvula in the studio as she’s finishing the album and Mvula seems tired and strained by the process, while her Nan seems to not quite understand what Laura truly does, but offers her support and encouragement, nonetheless. It seems like a fairly strange thing to include on the record, until you learn that actually, Laura Mvula plays both parts of the phone-call, mimicking her Grandmother’s voice.

On a podcast reviewing the album, comedian James Acaster said of the track [10m 6s]: “She’s doing that thing we can all sometimes do with family members on the phone where you’re not actually bringing you’re A-game because they’re your family … and it’s a bit of a shame you’re not trying more.” Continuing: “And the fact she’s doing it as a performance means that it’s not a moment that was captured, it’s her being conscious of that and how she speaks to her Grandmother”.

In many ways, Nan is the most powerful moment of introspection on the album. Forget the past love lost, what Nan demonstrates is that so often we can take meaningful relationships for granted while we still have them. For that reason, Nan deserves to be credited as a wonderful artistic achievement which compliments the themes and elevates the quality of this record.

The final song on The Dreaming Room, titled Phenomenal Woman, is the feminist Mvula’s reply to People. However, instead of seeking to detail the sociological oppression of women, it takes a more personal approach in its lyrics – all spoken from a first-person, point of view perspective. Musically, it is an up-tempo song reminiscent of the second track, Overcome. Phenomenal Woman and Overcome are the two tracks on the album that really lean more into Alt. Rock than Jazz or Soul, but that’s variety is what makes this album such a special work.

Altogether, Laura Mvula’s The Dreaming Room is a brilliant album which should have, in my opinion, charted far higher than it did (having only reached 21 in the UK and 23 in the US). Indeed, due to the lack of popular demand for The Dreaming Room, Mvula was sacked by her record label following the album’s release, which upon relistening, would stun even the most frugal of record executives. Nevertheless, Mvula is still making quality music and despite not releasing another album since The Dreaming Room, is still musically active.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, only one other record has captured me like The Dreaming Room, and that is Tame Impala's Currents. While I was researching for this album review, I came across a Laura Mvula cover of one of the songs featured on Currents, New Person, Same Old Mistakes:

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