Mabel, Somerset House review: an undeniable talent boxed in by the charts

Musical progeny: Mabel is the youngest child of 1980s pop star Neneh Cherry - Redferns
Musical progeny: Mabel is the youngest child of 1980s pop star Neneh Cherry - Redferns

London’s Somerset House proved an interesting setting for a modern pop concert. A grand neoclassical complex, its elegant pillars and domes whispered of an imperious antiquity at odds with the booming beats emanating from the stage. Seagulls wheeled in the darkening evening sky as a team of athletic dancers twerked around singer Mabel, whose black outfit hung in flyaway threads and ripped patches as if someone had accidentally put her leotard through a shredder.

“This song is about female empowerment! Can I get some bad bitches on stage?” she yelled as her tightly drilled three-piece band locked into the slinky click track and pre-processed bass of her song Definition. Her lyrics proclaimed: “I’m the definition of legendary, extraordinary/Check your dictionary, you’ll see me/Cause I’m the definition of a boss.”

Well, I checked my naming dictionary, and found that Mabel is derived from the Latin amabilis, which translates as “lovable”. It’s a description that genuinely suits Mabel McVey, a 26-year-old with an air of vulnerability at odds with her sometimes bullish lyrics.

“Thank-you is gonna be the key word tonight, cause I’m so grateful,” she insisted, visibly overwhelmed by the noisy support of her most dedicated fans. Performing to an audience of around 1,500, this was Mabel’s first British headline show of 2022, following the release last Friday of her second album, About Last Night… Throughout the concert she thanked all her musicians and dancers by name and concluded with a homily to friends and family “who support me so much”. She has clearly been well brought-up.

Mabel is the youngest child of pop star Neneh Cherry and music producer Cameron McVey (Massive Attack, Portishead), but has taken a more mainstream musical route than her arty parents. She concocts shiny, attention-grabbing dance pop characterised by sloganeering lyrics on sensitive subjects such as heartbreak and mental health, delivered with a pliant voice that revels in strong, low tones that can flutter aloft to tender heights.

Tightly choreographed: Mabel with her backing dancers - Redferns
Tightly choreographed: Mabel with her backing dancers - Redferns

Although her small band use all the usual high-tech backing track support of the genre, Mabel herself has no recourse to trickery, taking pride in nailing every note. She is indisputably talented, which has helped deliver 11 top 20 hits and win a Brit Award as 2020’s British Female Solo Artist.

And yet there is something of the round peg in a square hole about Mabel, which might explain why she is not yet a household name. For a central stretch of her show, she sat on a stool with two accomplished backing singers to sing a three-part harmony on melodiously complex ballads (Trouble, Overthinking and OK) with jazzy neo-soul flourishes to semi-acoustic backing. “I’d love to sing like this all day,” Mabel gushed, and it sounded like a confession.

There is a more accomplished artist lurking in Mabel, constrained by the parameters of chart-fixated pop – the over-familiar results reflect timidity rather than the bravura individuality that might supercharge her career. She can sing, dance and craft slick hits, but Mabel could use a shot of her parents’ eccentric boldness if she really wants the cherry on top.

About Last Night... is out now on Polydor