It’s likely that 2016 will be remembered as a collective slap in the face. We lost a number of cultural icons, Trump became president, the UK voted to exit the EU, Aleppo saw one of the worst humanitarian crisis of the decade, and that was all in the last half of the year. Released on the final day of this shitshow of a year, ’What’s Going On?’, the debut EP from Karachi artist Mudassir Sheikh, seems adequately titled.
But it becomes clear from the outset that MU isn’t that interested in what’s going on ‘out there’. Instead, this collection of 4 songs is stubbornly introspective and abstract. Opener ‘Ice Cream Man’ immediately calls up Alice in Wonderland, even referencing little bottles to be gulped ‘on a lonely day’. Sheikh leads us through a zoo of strange objects and things – a pink ostrich, an elephant, a man with four heads and so on. The track bounces around quite happily, even though MU teeters on the edge of the rabbit hole.
This trip continues through to ‘Checkered Floor’, featuring Srira_M, a fellow Karachi producer and ambient-electronic musician. Similar to ‘Ice Cream Man’, MU prefers simple, optimistic melodies, using ukuleles and twinkling synths to convey a sense of wonder and awe. The lyrics remain farcical – horses named Jade, walking statues etc – but it’s unclear what we’re to make of all this. The refrain – ‘things collapsed with my wings detached’ – suggests some kind of breakdown, and the Alice in Wonderland imagery obviously evokes psychedelics and hallucinatory drugs. Sheikh never really lets us know ‘what’s going on’, which is evidently the point. However, this mystery also doesn’t give us much to hold on to other than a series of images divorced from one another.
‘I Lied’ features production from Karachi artist NAWKSH, and shifts the tone of the EP. There’s an electronic buzz throughout, and the synths here sound lovely and rich. MU gets rid of the abstract imagery and metaphor and instead does a complete 180, with the somewhat clunky lines like ‘in the process of healing myself, I lied everyday’. But, even though it’s incredibly on the nose, there’s something endearing about the line, and a self-awareness that comes with it. Most of this, I think, comes from Sheikh’s voice, which is obviously untrained and often wonky, and has a distinct urdu lilt. But MU doesn’t seem to care, often pushing his voice across the extent of his range. And as he doesn’t care, we don’t either, and even though I was unsure about his voice at the start, by the end of the EP I became fond of it. It’s got character.
And MU saves his best for last. ‘Sinister Heart’ is one of those gorgeous summer melodies that’s simultaneously optimistic but also has a strange nostalgia about it. The synths are big and poppy (just how I like them), and even though the verse and chorus are a little unmemorable, the production, like the rest of the EP, is stellar. It’s enough to make you forget about how shit 2016 was for a few minutes.
‘What’s Going On’ is a debut EP with some growing pains, but introduces MU as a unique figure on the indie scene, unafraid to get super abstract or super sentimental, moving from ukulele alt-folk to beaming synth pop, all carried by his distinct voice, recalling post-millennium alternative indie bands like The Unicorns. I look forward to other stories Sheikh has to tell, once he’s recharged his batteries.
Listen to ‘Sinister Heart’ below, and you can buy the EP here.
Released via del/SER (there’s a secret track there if you look for it!)