Not long after it was launched, I subscribed to Apple Music. I know some people swear by Spotify, but I had tried it some time ago, and didn’t get on with it — I’m not entirely sure why. In many ways, I’m an old-fashioned music listener, and I prefer to listen to whole albums, most often in the order in which the artist intended. I found that Apple Music supported browsing and listening by album rather than song more easily, so that’s what I’ve stuck with. I still buy music in physical formats (most often vinyl), and so the ability to try out any album and play it multiple times to determine whether it is a keeper is very useful. I’ve also found that it has made me more adventurous, simply because I don’t have to pay per album, and can give something a quick try to see if it is my cup of tea. That strategy has led to me finding music that I probably would not otherwise have considered. So it was that I came across Kate Tempest’s album, Let Them Eat Chaos.
I had been vaguely aware of Kate Tempest, both as a poet and as a nominee for the Mercury Music prize, but I think I assumed that I wouldn’t like her style of music. I’m so unhip that I don’t even know how best to classify her genre1, but let’s say it’s something like rap or hip-hop, that is spoken lyrics over a mostly electronic background. Anyway, given that I could listen to it easily on Apple Music and try it out, my curiosity got the better of me. At first, I was listening while doing other things, but I ended up having to stop doing the other things, because I was so gripped by the lyrics, and because — by the time we got to ‘Europe is Lost’ — I couldn’t see what I was doing through the tears running down my face. I was completely broken by it, and that experience was absolutely not what I had expected when I started playing the album.
It’s a concept album in which we are introduced to seven people living in the same street in London, all awake and sleepless at 4:18am. They all have different problems and worries, and in the way of people today (particularly those in big cities), they are alone and isolated. This accumulation of their concerns and social isolation, contrasted with intermittent views from space back to our little blue-green planet, builds to an incredibly powerful, angry, polemic about consumerism, waste, social isolation and a lack of empathy and meaningful interaction. There is an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness:
“Riots are tiny though/Systems are huge”
In another very moving track, ‘Pictures on a Screen’, a character tries to work out why his life feels so distant and disconnected, when objectively he’s successful, living the dream:
“This feeling that I’m looking at the world from behind glass”
“I know it’s happening/but who is it happening to?”
Eventually, a storm that has been brewing breaks, and the seven people go out into the torrential rain, and finally see each other as fellow humans. It’s an exhortation to live, to connect with each other (properly), and do something — anything — to try to make things better for each other and our little blue-green planet.
It has been a very difficult year, one way or another for all of us, and Kate Tempest’s words spoke so precisely to my own thoughts and fears that it knocked me for six emotionally. I have perhaps made it sound like a depressing album, but it’s cathartic more than depressing, and there are moments of comedy too before you get to the end, which is hopeful — redemptive, even. A few days after I first listened to the album, I realised that I had actually recorded (without making the connection that it was Kate Tempest) a live performance of the album on National Poetry day, which at the time of writing you can still watch for the next 7 days. If anything, that performance was even more powerful, and Tempest struck me like a sweating, trance-weaving shaman, crackling with the conducted emotions of the people in the room and those watching from afar. She is incredible. If you have a chance, watch it, or listen to the album, but don’t do other stuff at the same time: listen, watch and be drawn in2.
“Wake up/And love more”
We really need voices like hers right now. There has always been racism, biogtry and intolerance, but I don’t remember a time when, not only is it socially acceptable to openly express that kind of hatred, but that it is socially unacceptable to express compassion or empathy. When people can be lambasted for the temerity to suggest that it’s morally wrong to treat traumatised refugee children like horses we’re buying at an auction. We need people with the courage to say that we are all inter-connected humans, and we cannot be happy if it is at the expense of another human’s happiness, that this slowly kills us from the inside.