As of today, there are only 85 days left to stream or purchase NINE, the new and fifth album by the mysterious (and mysteriously prolific) U.K. collective SAULT, before it disappears. The album, announced less than two weeks before its June 25 release and preceded by no singles, is only available for 99 days — the latest stunt from an already closely guarded group that rode a wave of critical intrigue into the spotlight just two years ago. SAULT doesn’t make press statements, so it’s unclear what the intention behind the album’s ephemerality is; the group’s 2019 debut album, 5, and follow-up, 7, didn’t come with similar disclaimers. All the more strange, SAULT has no trouble making its music urgent: Last year’s Untitled (Black Is), released on Juneteenth, raised the group’s profile by becoming an essential document in a world protesting for Black lives, and its sequel, Untitled (Rise), felt like a necessary moment of celebratory relief offered without losing sight of the ongoing struggle. SAULT seems to preempt social moments, and that trend continues on NINE, the group’s most communal-sounding project yet, which comes as people return from social isolation to a changed world. It’s rooted in lively chants; transitioning from song to song sounds like walking through a bustling neighborhood, past schoolyards and street performers.
Behind that exterior, the music is haunting. “I wanna be free / Free my fam and my mind,” goes the singsongy chorus of “Trap Life.” “ ’Cause we’re locked up inside / Please don’t reach for that knife, knife, knife.” On the song “Fear,” a vocalist simply repeats the phrase “The pain is real,” twisting it to “the realest pain.” Toward NINE’s second half, the collective uses timeless soul and R&B motifs to the same end, as is exemplified by the album’s beautiful, soft-spoken centerpiece, “Bitter Streets,” which finds SAULT at its most indelible.
Cleo Sol, an R&B singer from London and one of the group’s core members, sings on the track. (Other core members include U.K. producer Inflo and Chicago rapper Kid Sister; the group has also worked with Michael Kiwanuka and Little Simz, and it’s unclear just how many musicians are involved.) Her tone is gentle and unadorned as the she slowly unfurls a dark story: “I remember, when we were young / You made friends with a gun,” she sings to a childhood friend. SAULT dwells on gang activity across NINE, painting a complex portrait of their world: “It’s a fight for life / No one’s doing it right,” opens “London Gangs,” the album’s second track. Likewise, Sol isn’t passing judgment on “Bitter Streets,” a play on the word “bittersweet”; instead, there’s a tinge of worry in her voice as she describes the friend going missing or maybe losing touch with her. The ballad is held down by SAULT’s reliably strong, forward-moving percussion before giving way to a poignant, lilting strings section. SAULT has proven time and again that it can use these tools to build a swell of emotion, but here, as on the Black Is ballad “Wildfire,” they only accent Sol’s lyrics.
“Bitter Streets” is cautionary, but as the songs preceding it on the album show — if not in their lyrics, than in their sound — city streets can be the root of Black joy, which is capable of growing alongside the violence that lives with it. SAULT is at its strongest when acknowledging life’s gray areas, taking the beauty with the pain. That’s what makes “Bitter Streets” one of the collective’s best, most enduring songs, even in NINE’s ephemerality.