Sault Returns With ‘Nine,’ the Mysterious British Collective’s Fifth Thought-Provoking Album in Two Years

Unknown quantities no longer exist in popular music, but Sault is probably the closest — and best — thing to one in a media landscape inundated in promotion (and self-promotion). In a little over two years, this mysterious British collective has released five albums to substantial acclaim without revealing almost anything about its members. Moreover, the fact that each record has been almost increasingly rhapsodically reviewed has only deepened this cult of anti-personality, encouraging audiences and critics to zero in on the music and its message, even after its two singers and their collaborators were publicly identified. “Nine” was released unceremoniously last week, along with a ticking clock allowing its consumption on streaming services for only 99 days — a new limit to protect against the ubiquitousness and disposability, perhaps, of art they clearly mean to serve a purpose other than as “content.” The slight problem with this, however, is that the band has effectively become a content factory since making its debut in May of 2019; but the good news is that “Nine” is just as good as the rest of its output, offering yet another beautifully cohesive juxtaposition of sociocultural commentary and genre-hopping music that fits confidently into Sault’s growing catalogue of instant classics.

It certainly helps that their music overlaps with an extremely timely sound but still stands out from it, merging the gospel-choir backing track of Donald Glover’s “This Is America” with its incendiary political charge, inside garage-band soul inspired by Tony Allen and Fela Kuti’s infectious afrobeat polyrhythms, featuring two female vocalists with palpably defiant personalities. The record opens with “Haha,” a joyful chorus stomping with determination to deliver a simple message: “How about, ha-ha-ha-ha / How about the love.” Cleopatra Nikolic, who released a solo album in December 2020 as Cleo Sol, leads the group with a voice that sounds like the activist midpoint between late Broadcast singer Trish Keenan and the double-dutch funk of The Go! Team’s English frontwoman Ninja. Producer Dean Josiah “Inflo” Cover interjects a fuzzed-out bass guitar before the next song, “London Gangs,” even starts, but Nikolic quickly resumes her place at the center of his cavernous mix with a look at clashes between cultures, communities and even postcodes. Cover drops everything out except her voice for a lullabye of a bridge before diving back into that propulsive bass loop, adding a cacophony of voices that creates a haunting sense of menace and urgency, the sensation of vintage Bomb Squad production on a 1989 or ’90 Public Enemy song without the barbed-wire layer cake of samples.

Notwithstanding the record’s sense of social consciousness, which narrows in on ills specific to the U.K. with the same breathless outrage as P.E. used to employ, what distinguishes Sault — repeatedly — is the group’s inventive, playful, purposeful song structures, which swap out arrangements and even genres to give the listener a roller coaster ride through their influences. “Trap Life” further explores the pitfalls and pressures of poverty and street life, opening with a percussion-filled midtempo groove right out of the playbook of a band like BadBadNotGood, then cranks into a righteous slab of grime that would sound perfectly natural behind a verse from Wiley or Dizzee Rascal. Then there’s “Fear,” a moody, evocative word-association jam (“You fear, the rage / Night, cries / Dark, lies”) set to the low rumble of a fuzzed-out bass guitar and the scruffy precision of Cover’s drum kit. A male voice joins Nikolic on the back half of the song along with a discordant collection of sound effects to create a ghostly chorus that’s scary and funky all at once. 

After Michael Ofo recounts the experience of watching his mother learn of his brother’s death on “Mike’s Story,” “Bitter Streets” offers a change in tone that sounds similar to Broadcast’s “Come On Let’s Go,” a similarly introspective, almost twee tribute but about a friend or family member lost to the lure of street violence instead of Keenan’s romantic partner. Cover surprises yet again — well, if you haven’t heard their earlier work, one supposes — with a sophisticated string arrangement as Nikolic provides the vocal counterpoint of the title, repeated, to his musical sweetness. “Alcohol” follows in a similar mode, touching down like a forlorn love song but in content reflecting on the sad acknowledgment of addiction and self-destruction. Nikolic sounds absolutely heartbreaking: “This time, you won / Oh-oh, alcohol / Only supposed to be once,” she sings, treating it like an abusive lover. “One step forward, two steps back.” 

“You From London” immediately reminds of Sault’s “You Know It Ain’t” from “Untitled (Rise),” first because of Melisa “Kid Sister” Young’s spicy vocal sample framing the guest verse from Little Simz, but eventually, the irreverence and play-ignorance she brings to the song (“Wait, oh, Sault, oh you live by the Queen? You ever seen her? What’s she like? Y’all eat crumpets and stuff?”). Cover’s production feels positively effortless, even as he folds in horns and vocal samples (or possibly original recordings that he’s manipulated), perfectly nailing a beautiful halfway point between chillout music and the kind of studio vamping that used to give singers like Luther Vandross or Teddy Pendergrass the chance to showcase their range — which is exactly what Young is doing here. 

“9” and “Light’s In Your Hands” end the record with back to back powerhouse songs, both offering a beacon of hope for people who feel trapped in cycles of crime and poverty. The fact that these are equally great speaks to the indefatigable depths of the group’s talent both in creating these incredible narratives over and over and then their ability to pair them with musical accompaniment that is always beautiful and evocative and just utterly engaging to listen to, a latter-day Donny Hathaway working as brilliantly with a crack backing band or solo piano. For better or worse it also speaks to the fact that they may be better served in their longevity by pooling these efforts into slightly more well-rounded album efforts; as good as most of the songs are, some still feel like sketches or explorations that could benefit from another pass. In which case, this record feels more like a soundtrack EP to a documentary about London gangs and UK street crime than, say, an independent album; but when there’s as much talent on display as they exhibit even in their least fully formed ideas, it all becomes an embarrassment of riches, especially since there’s virtually no one else working today with the same consistency. With or without a public persona to accompany the band’s prodigious output, “Nine” further evidences how Sault’s achievements continue to pile up — and show no signs of slowing any time soon.

Nine” releases June 25 on Apple Music.