A lot has happened to Zarif in the eleven years since her last studio release, Box of Secrets. After widespread acclaim for the album and subsequent performances with John Legend and touring with Tom Odell, two diagnoses of breast cancer saw her dropped from her major label record deal. Disillusioned with both the treatment of her previous label and the material from their releases, Zarif has returned with the independently produced EP Square One.
The four tracks that make up Square One sit in a territory inhabited mostly by guitar bands forced to tailor their output to a greater standard of sophistication. Zarif displays an obvious aptitude and intricacy in creating these sorts of sounds – there’s a level of assuredness that reflects her experience in songwriting, with or without an eleven-year break. Though, situating in the indie-pop arena makes Square One, at times, a recreation of a style that is arguably too saturated in today’s scene. At others, however, it is a compelling listen.
Moments of uplifting liberation lead the charge. “Nothing But A Memory” is an excellent opener, driven by a punchy groove and Zarif’s powerful vocals detailing her battle with breast cancer with affecting optimism. Lead single “Click” is the strongest track, a delicious number of exuberant force and unashamed grit that represents a palpable authority and direction amongst its less assertive companions.
This unapologetic insistency is perhaps something that could be exhibited more frequently in the EP. Zarif is at her best on Square One at her most confrontational, either in her own vocal delivery or in her instrumental accompaniment. “Back To Square One”, the EP’s concluding act, dabbles invitingly in the abrasion of grunge but just misses out on a significantly afflicting moment of release to make it a truly emphatic send off.
But we mustn’t forget that this is an artist who has returned from an extensive hiatus, and, insofar as ‘comeback’ releases go, Square One symbolises a resoundingly confident return for Zarif. These are songs of undeniable presence, and while a complete sound may still be in the stages of materialisation, Square One does leave you wanting more.
The most rewarding, and differentiating, feature of the EP is the marauding nature of the more intensely commanding tracks. Square One is evidence that she possesses the songwriting skills and prominence in voice to easily push her music to more combative realms of expression, and this could be the defining principle and stake to independence that her future releases may hold.