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Zayn Delivers His Own MTV Unplugged Set on ‘Room Under the Stairs’ 

The musician’s stripped-down fourth studio album is a showcase for the bare foundations of his artistry


Charlie Chich*

Zayn’s starting point for his fourth studio album Room Under the Stairs was an emotional low point. “Alienated” began in his home studio in rural Pennsylvania, where he wrote the majority of the record on his own in a state of both creative and physical isolation. The percussive track simmers in solitary sorrow as the musician dives simultaneously into the darkest depths of his mind and the bottom of a bottle. “Know my reasons for the pain, but if you brought it in front of me I know I’d do it all again,” he sings over hollow acoustics, admitting: “I know from all my years that my feelings never change.”

Ahead of the album’s arrival, Zayn performed  “Alienated” with a five-piece band for a rare live performance video. The instrumentalists are really his only audience there, following his lead and providing layers of harmonies throughout the performance. And yet, the singer spent most of the set crooning with his eyes closed, seemingly growing more comfortable in the space throughout the song. Zayn last performed in front of an actual live audience more than half a decade ago, having cited severe anxiety as the primary blockage between him and the stage. That will change tonight as he celebrates the release of Room Under the Stairs with an intimate concert at London’s O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire.

The 2,000-capacity space is a fitting launch pad for the album. It was in venues of that size, and occasionally even smaller, that music’s biggest stars broke their songs down to their simplest forms on MTV Unplugged. Zayn crafted Room Under the Stairs in this same vein. The record, written almost entirely solo and co-produced with Dave Cobb, is a 49-minute acoustic special in its own right. While promoting the album, Zayn’s most persistent messaging pushed his solitary songwriting process as the core of the album. Bolstered by live instruments, the stripped back production format he established with Cobb naturally places so much emphasis on the lyrical content, particularly on songs like the standouts “Shoot at Will” and “How It Feels.”

“Can you tell me just one thing/Can you give me a reason to stay/‘Cause the feelings I’m harboring/Don’t seem to see the light of day,” Zayn sings with a sense of defeat on “How It Feels,” his vocal wrapped in swelling orchestral production and a sparse piano melody. “Shivers down my spine/Never forget to remind me, I’m alive/‘Til I let go of this moment/Something holdin’ me to this place/I’ve been breaking, always faking/I’m just lying to your face/And I can’t tell you how it feels.” The singer spends a significant portion of the album in his headspace — operating from the vantage point of someone self-aware enough to recognize the problem, but not yet resolved enough to enact meaningful change.

On “Gates of Hell,” Zayn completes another loop in his cycle of chaos, repeating: “I don’t like you very much/But I keep putting up with your shit.” It’s one of the weaker lyrical moments on the record, burdened by the monotonous strum of an acoustic guitar over production that sounds especially incomplete. The singer started working on Room Under the Stairs around four to five years ago, and while the timeline of when each song emerged is unclear, certain cuts like “Gates of Hell” and “Concrete Kisses” — which channels Frank Ocean on a bridge that deserved better lyrical company  — come across as early demos that were never conceptualized to their fullest potential. In those moments, Zayn’s MTV Unplugged set becomes a singular barstool in a bustling café where no one is paying too much attention to the man on the open mic stage.

Sporadically, Zayn communicates the sense that he would have almost preferred that context — the quiet life of a coffee shop crooner. On his farm in Pennsylvania, he’s achieved as much seclusion and anonymity as any former member of One Direction could likely hope for. Room Under the Stairs is a reflection of that change, but it isn’t a complete departure from the singer’s three R&B-driven studio albums that came before it. His solo debut Mind of Mine leaned into atmospheric simplicity on “It’s You” and “Drunk.” And on “Good Years,” from the both bloated and underrated Icarus Falls, and “Better” from his third effort Nobody Is Listening, he similarly explored crucial self-reflections. He wasn’t truly lacking insight across those R&B-inflected records. Mostly, he just needed an editor.

Occasionally, Zayn slips back into that R&B pocket. “Something in the Water” gives weight to the Justin Timberlake comparisons that emerged when he became the first to go solo. It’s one of three songs on the record that the singer didn’t write himself, but he sings “got me dripping in that old school love” with the conviction of a true veteran of the genre. On “Grateful,” Zayn delivers a highlight not only of the album but of his complete catalog. “And it feels good/And I knew it would/When I’m telling this story/It’s complicated, some mishaps/I’ve been mourning/But I’m grateful for it,” he sings, relieved to be freeing himself from the burden of the past. Reminiscent of an early career Alicia Keys, that same passion (and stunning harmonies) breaks through in his vocal performance across the soulful album closer “Fuchsia Sea,” pulling it into the space of an instant classic.

It’s not hard to understand the appeal of teaming with Cobb for Room Under the Stairs, meant to serve in many ways as a reintroduction and reentry into the pop machine on Zayn’s own terms. The producer is one of Nashville’s most in-demand collaborators whose credits include team ups with Chris Stapleton, Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson, and more. But it was never really the sound of country and Americana that strengthened their releases — it was the emotion, songwriting, and storytelling. Zayn hits most of these core marks on “The Time,” but sings each verse with a distracting country accent mountains away from his British twang, which randomly resurfaces on the chorus.

But it’s on “Birds on a Cloud” that he clears each category with thrilling ease. The song is set against the sonic backdrop of what sounds like a perfect beach day — all sunshine and perfect temperatures — but features one of the most devastating refrains on the album as he pleads: “Please give me one more day of happiness, I need it.” For a moment, in the warmth of his lower register on the bridge, Zayn finds the contentment he’s been searching for. “Stardust” evokes the same breezy feeling — though it channels a flower field more than a beach. It marks a rare moment where a love song on the album isn’t marred with the acknowledgement of toxicity — though, to be fair, he didn’t write that one. It’s a curious selection in the context of the rest of the record, but perhaps signals towards the optimism he spends most of the record hoping to make room for.

While MTV Unplugged often captured artists at the height of their careers, Room Under the Stairs is a showcase of an artist willingly setting the bar higher to give himself something to yearn for both emotionally and creatively. Zayn’s simultaneous emergence as a lead songwriter, producer, and — for the first time in nearly a decade — a live performer is a heavy load to place on one record and it doesn’t arrive without its stumbles. But across these 15 songs, he evokes the feeling that those missteps and the spectators making note of them disappear when he closes his eyes and just sings, entirely unplugged.

From Rolling Stone US