There’s been a buzz brewing following the announcement that Kate Tempest has been named Guest Artistic Director for next year’s Brighton Festival. She’s young, talented and will resonate with many younger people, who often feel sidelined by what is one of biggest and most well known arts festivals in the country. Not because they don’t like art per se, but to have someone represent them, to be on their side, as it were, can only be a good thing.
Only 30, Tempest’s list of achievements are extraordinary; Mercury Prize nominee for her debut album Everybody Down, Ted Hughes award winner for Brand New Ancients, writer of several plays including Wasted, Glasshouse and Hopelessly; and acclaimed novelist with the multi-generational tale of drugs, desire and belonging, The Bricks That Built The Houses.
But it is her music that she is best known for. She has a long history of performing at open mics, spoken word events and with bands, all of which prepared her for Everybody Down, her first official album release. It was a brilliantly conceived collection of narrative tracks that married her traditional poetry craft, her skilful and resonating spoken metre, and the kinetic agitation of hip-hop and urban electro beats courtesy of Dan Carey. With that album she spoke from the heart and with a great deal of courage about everyday tales of poverty, class, consumerism and even simple everyday living – at times drawing on mythology and holistic philosophy to tie the individual narratives into a cohesive whole. She was a much needed socio-political voice in a sea of trite and trivial pop and rock.
With Let Them Eat Chaos (a play on the historical ‘let them eat cake’ quote attributed to Marie Antoinette, wife of aristocratic King Louis XVI in pre-revolutionary France) Tempest delves deeper into her thoughts on the universe and everything: each individual’s place within it and the interconnectivity between them and all things. The album focuses on the lives of seven seemingly unconnected individuals, living on the same anonymous street in London. It details their lives at 4.18am, perhaps the deepest part of the night, a time when humans are perhaps least connected (when most are in bed asleep).
“Picture a vacuum, an endless and unmoving blackness. Peace or the absence at least of terror, a sea in amongst all this space, that spec of light in the furthest corner”, she speaks at the beginning of ‘Picture A Vacuum’, a gentle intro that provides a false sense of security as the mood quickly darkens via the harsh electronic waves and pulses of Dan Carey, her producer once again. “Is that a smile that plays across her lips, or is it a tremor of dread, the sadness of mothers as they watch the fate of their children unfold”, Tempest speaks. It is a gloriously dark and brooding vision of both the individual and the vast, sprawling metropolis that is London, one that hides a deep anxiety and sadness, under the cover of night. “What am I to make of all this?” she finishes, as dark beats and moody synths lead into ‘Lionmouth Door Knocker’. “At any given moment in the middle of a city there’s a million epiphanies occurring,” she sing-speaks, providing further background before starting to hone in on the lives of the seven (Gemma, Esther, Alysha, Zoe, Bradley etc). All of whom are surviving and trying to cope within the unforgiving landscape of 21st century austerity Britain, a country barely coping itself with the complexities and rivalries of globalism and increasingly rampant nationalism. It all sounds desperate for these seven, as Tempest cuts through the bullshit to lay bare their souls and the meaning of life, as one-by-one they look for outlets to escape the mind-numbing drudgery of work and routine hardship in the big city, while Carey musically evokes a late night urban setting via a blend of noir beats, textures and effects.
On the key track, and album highlight, ‘Europe Is Lost’, she goes from the spoken word particulars of a down-trodden and over-worked individual (“she’s worried about the world tonight. She does not know how she is supposed to put it from her mind”), to the generalities of urban existence, not just here but around the world. Tempest sings about the toil of humans throughout history in getting to where we are today, where escapism is rife in order not to face up to the overwhelmingly menial and cut-throat existence of living. A circle of life: taking and giving, creating and destroying, man eat man. Tempest succinctly outlines these in poetic rap form, focusing on the contradictions of progress and community in this “bored-of-it-all-generation”, while Carey’s rattling industrial soundscape gets the feet tapping and the head nodding. If you’re going be down about it all, at least have some groove underneath it all!
The stories and narratives continue in this vein, Tempest reaching out for some seriously heavy questioning, such as on ‘We Die’. Her dark, yet spiritual words speaking of Alysha looking for purpose amidst her tiredness, the intensity rising in Tempest’s voice as she delivers a big holistic bazooka: “Everything is connected, and even if I can’t read it right, everything is a message. We die, so that others can be born; we age, so that others can be young. The point of life is live love if you can and pass it on.” And on ‘Don’t Fall In’ Tempest is on a (spoken word) roll: “Hard rain falling on all the half hearted, half formed, fast walking, half fury, half boredom, hard talking, half dead from exhaustion, hard pushed, but the puddles keep forming. Don’t fall in.”
Halfway through the album, Tempest deploys a weather metaphor (a big storm is brewing) and the stories become a little less grim, albeit spiced with plenty of sadness and lost chances. The characters come together and narrative threads arrive on the penultimate track ‘Breaks’. As the heavens open the lightning charges through them and the opportunity arrives for them to become children again, shoulders unhitching: “Seven broken hearts, seven empty faces. Here’s our seven perfect strangers, and they see each other.“
This late-in-the-day optimism is heavily tempered by final track ‘Tunnel Vision’, a wake up call to those who want to listen, aided by a lolling futuristic synth based groove. Tempest urges us to look beyond the individual and into our collective hearts: “Atomised, thinking we’re engaged when we’re pacified, staring at the screens so we don’t have to see the planet die. What are we going to do to wake up, we sleep so deep, it don’t matter how they shake us, if we can’t face it, we can’t escape it, but tonight the storms come. I’m screaming at my loved ones, to wake-up, to love more.”
Let Them Eat Chaos is something of a State Of The Union address and a reminder of the obliviousness and selfishness of corporate, individualised systems that lead all too much into modern day ailments: loneliness, isolation, depression, alcoholism, drug dependency, fear and indeed chaos. In particular she speaks of the young – men and women – who are being failed and left behind as they try to cope with rising rents, rising debts and falling psychological stability. And, with a big heart, Tempest’s wake-up call should really get some alarm bells ringing.