Zayn – Room Under The Stairs

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Perhaps country music is not the first word that comes to mind when you think of Zayn, but its influences shine bright on his latest album Room Under the Stairs. Mostly known for exiting boyband One Direction early on his own terms, his music ever since showed clear R&B influences. With an incomparable voice and oozing style, he was almost guaranteed a massively successful career. Yet, for years, Zayn was hindered by his own anxieties – electing not to perform or actively promote his albums.

A lot has changed over the past three years for the rollout of Room Under the Stairs. On the record, Zayn continues to color outside the lines of what’s expected of him. His previous release was an ambitious concept album that spanned over 30 songs. This time, he’s left the edgier pop behind and instead turned towards a more contemplative, confessional folk. With a blue album cover, it’s perhaps not entirely unsurprising that the songs at times also display clear bluesy tones. “Alienated” is such a song, which does mention feeling like he’s alone. With country royalty Dave Cobb producing, it’s no surprise that the album relies heavily on acoustic guitars and authentic blues instrumentals.

However, in a clear departure from Zayn’s previous work, the lyrics are actually a lot more uplifting. Less focused on sexual liberation, and a sense of loneliness, the narratives have shifted to self-reflection. If anything, a recurring theme seems to be a recentring or recalibrating. Take “Grateful,” in which Zayn sings: “I’m grateful for you / These days I live to my depiction / Nowadays I’m finding no affliction / These days I’m needing no restriction / Feel like I’m finding new addiction / And it feels good.” Similarly, “Concrete Kisses” acknowledges the painful mistakes and heartbreaks. However, it ends with a promise to find “my way on the highway this year.”

While Zayn’s voice probably would make reciting the Yellow Pages sound utterly enticing, at times, Room Under the Stairs can feel a bit docile. The low-tempo songs do not lend themselves much to the rhythmic pop radio hits you might expect. Rather, this album primarily suits a rainy afternoon sitting by your windowsill, or lying on a picnic blanket in the sunny grass. Of course, there are outliers. “Something In The Water” is an incredibly well-produced R&B jam that carefully blends a distorted chorus with a more folksy, guitar-heavy feel. There’s “Stardust”, a mid-tempo song that somehow seems a little bit inspired by Post Malone’s signature sound.

“Shoot At Will” relies on more traditionally pop undertones in its writing, and includes a genius lyric about shared parenthood: “When I look at her, all I see is you / when you look at her, do you see me too?” Whether it’s meant to be reassuring, nostalgic, or something to agonise over is entirely left up for interpretation. It’s also one of the very few lyrics that seem more pointedly personal.

And that’s at times the problem of Room Under the Stairs. Vague, escapist lyricism doesn’t always match well with the authenticity and sensitivity that you’d often expect for a folk/country-influenced album. Nonetheless, wanting to blend the two is a creative challenge that should be appreciated – even if Zayn doesn’t always stick to the landing. He’s always exuded an aura of mysteriousness, which has suited him well in the past. But if he truly wants to connect through music, it’s time to step out of the shadows for real. On Room Under The Stairs, Zayn is halfway there. It makes it all the more interesting to see where this musical journey, including performing live again, will bring him next.