Album Review: Tash Sultana – 'Sugar' EP

18 August 2023 | 2:44 pm | Ellie Robinson

A delightfully sweet reminder that Tash Sultana is one of Australia’s most interesting songwriters.

Tash Sultana – Sugar

Tash Sultana – Sugar (Supplied)

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It was Tash Sultana’s second album, 2021’s Terra Firma, that saw them take a sledgehammer to the silky and psychedelic, loop-based indie-prog sound they initially cut their teeth on. As its title (Latin for “firm land”) hints, the hourlong, 14-track effort saw Sultana build a whole new musical world for themself, retaining the stoney slick and tasteful sweetness of 2018 debut Flow State (and its career-launching predecessor, the 2016 EP Notion) but spinning it through a brighter and broader web.

The Naarm/Melbourne singer-songwriter performed with a full band, employed more dynamic production, and added new flavours to their palette: pop, hip-hop, blues and soul gelled in spellbinding harmony. This was Tash Sultana 2.0, and they were here to take over the world.

That same year, Sultana hit up Melbourne’s super intimate Chapel Off Chapel theatre for their MTV Unplugged session – a set they conceded to NME was “absolutely plugged the fuck in”, but reinvented a suite of their biggest and best songs with completely new perspectives, delivering some of their all-time most incredible performances. Released as an album last May, the gig bolstered this viewpoint that Sultana’s new era came with a major upheaval to their artistry, them going above and beyond to explore new creative avenues and methods to fuck with the status quo.

Sultana has now returned with their Sugar EP, formally billed as the first half of their third studio album (little is known about their plans for the other half, but we can only assume it’ll be called Spice). The cover art teases something loose and lowkey: it’s a quirky, purple-drenched drawing of a mushroom wearing sunnies and huffing a joint, puffy yellow text framing it (with another mushroom standing in as the ‘T’ in ‘Sultana’). It’s certainly fitting in one sense – this is one of those records primed for blissed-out highs and melts into couches – but as dorky as it may appear at face value, the six songs on offer here are some of Sultana’s tightest, most well thought-out and, to be frank, best.

We start with James Dean, a cruisy pop tune that shimmers with cinematic strings and soaring vocal runs, coloured and energised with an ultra-punchy drum beat. It would likely feel out of place in a song by any other artist, but here it feels natural – a quintessential Sultana quirk. New York hinges similarly on their idiosyncrasies: it’s another unequivocal pop song, bright and buoyant with catchy 808s and a rousing grand piano groove, but it trails off with a smoky guitar solo (interrupted by a second bridge) that draws it out to six minutes – and yet, not a second of it feels forced or out of place.

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There are two more songs on Sugar that sprawl beyond the “normal” boundaries of a pop song’s length. 1975 is the most notable, clocking in at seven minutes and 16 seconds, but it weirdly feels short with everything packed into it. The first minute is stripped-back with Sultana’s rich and soulful vocals accompanied solely by an acoustic guitar, before gentle keys, atmospheric synths and droning kick drum build towards an instrumental middle that is at once glittery and meditative. The spacey prog-pop vibes canter on until the fifth minute, when dry orchestration and punchy 808s carry us to our epilogue of chopped-up vocals, trickling synths and punchy horns.

Also worth shouting out is the hook that opens the track, where Sultana sings sweetly (yet with a gut-punching undertone of snark), “You listen to The 1975 / While I just try to feel alive / The disconnect, you know I see it.” The line stings in practise, and speaks to the breadth of emotion Sultana covers across Sugar.

The EP’s other notably lengthy track is Dove, which harkens back to Sultana’s halcyon days with its slow-burning stack of acoustic guitars, airy vocal harmonies and percussive hits – all slicked over with dizzying atmospherics – that around the middle point, flicks over to a dreamy, folky instrumental building up to a moment of triumphant elation. It reminds us of Daydreaming, the 2019 song that Sultana minted with Milky Chance.

Speaking of collaborations, Sugar features one of its own, a bristly R&B song called Bitter Lovers that features BJ The Chicago Kid. The rootsy beat and tender guitars make it stand out in the tracklist, while BJ’s suave tenor adds immeasurable depth; he and Sultana recorded their vocal parts remotely, but it feels like the kind of duet you can only capture with both singers staring deeply into each other’s eyes. And with that, the only song we haven’t addressed is You People Freak Me Out. But there’s not a lot we can say about: it’s not necessarily a bad track, but it offers nothing of notable intrigue – a little formulaic, but still a worthy inclusion on the disc.

All in all, Sugar lives up to its name as a delightfully sweet reminder that Tash Sultana is one of Australia’s most interesting songwriters. Now we just have to wonder what Spice will bring to the table – our bets are set on blastbeats and breakdowns, let’s open up this fucking pit.

Tash Sultana’s Sugar EP is out now via Lonely Lands Records.