Easily one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary British R&B, Nao makes music that is soul-stirring and entrancing in equal measure. Nowhere is this more obvious than on her upcoming third album, ‘And Then Life Was Beautiful’, which picks up the star’s story where she left off and invites us into the latest stretch of her journey. Where 2018’s ‘Saturn’placed emphasis on love, loss and personal growth, this record is about coming out the other end with strength and perseverance.
Opening the record, the title track drifts gently along as if taking you away to another galaxy, with its soul-pop sounds giving hints of ‘Saturn’’s cosmic qualities. While an overwhelming warmth shapes the album – the result of Nao’s newfound outlook following her pregnancy and the forced pause brought by the pandemic – the songwriting exudes a feeling of freedom in the choice of instrumentation and arrangements. The Tresillo rhythm and addition of Nigerian highlife singer Adekunle Gold on ‘Antidote’ provides a buoyant contrast to the mellow soulfulness in songs like ‘Good Luck’, featuring American singer-songwriter Lucky Daye, and ‘Postcards’, which has a beautiful vocal interplay between Nao and serpentwithfeet.
Nao’s vocals are characteristically lush throughout the album, glowing with confidence as she effortlessly spans her entire range, always remaining silken in delivery. Tracks like the 2020 single ‘Woman’, a sultry celebration of womanhood featuring Lianne La Havas, and ‘Messy Love’, a 90s R&B-influenced anthem, are where this truly shines, as the layers of vocal harmonies smoothly wash over subtly strummed guitars.
The hook of ‘Messy Love’ (“No one wants that love / That kind of messy love”) alludes to the idea of protecting yourself and your energy. This theme of healing and self-love is prevalent throughout the album’s 13 tracks, but it manifests itself in varying ways. While ‘Burn Out’ is Nao’s account of avoiding that moment of emotional and physical exhaustion, ‘Better Friend’ is a hopeful ballad and a promise of betterment towards others. Elsewhere, the intimate and stripped back ‘Wait’, which sees Nao accompanied by a solo piano and strings, offers a moment of reflection and a chance to breathe, relevant to the genesis of the whole album.
The success of Nao’s second full-length ‘Saturn’ took her around the world, leading to multiple accolades, including a Mercury Prize and Grammy nomination. But after a solid period riding this incredible wave, it was clear that she needed a moment of reset before she would be able to continue in any meaningful way. The result of this break is a vibrant and affecting third album, which defies expectations with its organic message of uplift and tender reminder of the benefits of slowing down.