By Rowan Gavin
And they will run to the highest hill, consult their old books
Ask the dead mystics for wisdom they don’t trust
– Kae Tempest, Don’t Fall In
Kae Tempest’s latest album Let Them Eat Chaos is probably the most insightful and important work to be produced on this small island this year. On Monday night, Tempest and their band performed it in full, without interruption, to an enraptured crowd of strangers at the Waterfront in Norwich. Witnessing this storm of synths, bass, drums and words – words fleeting and clear as raindrops in a monsoon downpour – was an incredible experience.
If you’ve not listened to the album yet, make sure you do next time you have 47 minutes free. It’s a heart-stopping, whirlwind tour of modern human experience, seen through the fractured lens of a single moment in the lives of seven people living on a street in London. It’s 4.18 am, and Gemma, Esther, Alisha, Pete, Bradley, Zoe and Pius are awake, thinking. Tempest’s words bring us into their minds, giving more character, more reality to these seven in the three to five minutes they dedicate to each of them than I’ve found in many epic-length novel protagonists. Their half-spoken, half-sung thoughts explore war, love, financial collapse, gentrification, inequality, migration, xenophobia, fear, family, loss, ignorance, climate change, inebriation, guilt, death, drudgery, hope, meaning and meaninglessness. And every word, every phrase, every inflection rings with truth.
One voice representing the many who are hurt and angered by the state of the 21st century world – one voice that is no longer Tempest’s alone
This is the most astonishing thing about Tempest’s work – how it captures so many diverse thoughts, feelings, states of mind, and political situations with incredible immediacy and accuracy. Aspects of familiar ideas and situations that you’ve never noticed before are expertly excavated. Perspectives that you’ve never personally encountered are made starkly real and relatable. And as Tempest tells us, this power of communication is itself another truth of the world: “You see, the tragedy and pain of a person that you’ve never met / Is present in your nightmares, in your pull towards despair”.
The live rendition of the album was a lot heavier, musically speaking, than its recorded counterpart. The drums and synths were relentless, throwing the audience between brief frenzies of movement and sudden moments of startled stillness. Producer Dan Carey weaves between genres and dips into whatever is needed to complement the directness of Tempest’s message. Beats and riffs from hip-hop, ska, house, grime, pop, dub and who knows where else came and went, sometimes lasting only a single bar but always lending just the right emphasis to the lyrics. The lighting was handled with similar expertise. Many of the tracks culminated amongst high-speed, blindingly bright lightning flashes. As the rain poured down in Breaks, soft blues descended on us from above. And during Don’t Fall In, each time Tempest reached the titular line in the chorus the band dropped out and the house lights went up. For a second we were startled out of the gig headspace, in a powerful reminder that these words describe the real world.
Tempest is a strikingly egoless performer. Their voice is rarely their own. Often they speak as one of the album’s seven characters, equally often as the listener’s own inner voice. Most fascinating is their use of collective voice, an unidentified “we” that is sometimes all of humanity, sometimes the many who have been displaced by conflict and climate change, sometimes the many who live day-to-day and turn away from the world, sometimes every entity of Earth, human and otherwise. No us and them here – this voice reminds us that to ignore our connections as humans is criminal: “It was our boats that sailed, killed, stole, and made frail / It was our boots that stamped / It was our courts that jailed / And it was our fucking banks that got bailed”. One of the most interesting forms of collective voice on the album is in Europe Is Lost, which was released as a single more than a year ago. The voice shouting its unforgiving tirade of protest was then Tempest’s own, but it reappears on Let Them Eat Chaos as the thoughts of Esther, “a carer, doing nights”. One voice representing the many who are hurt and angered by the state of the 21st century world – one voice that is no longer Tempest’s alone. Tempest’s art evolves to meet the need for collective thought and feeling that they identify as paramount many times on the record.
Though Tempest’s individual viewpoint often disappears in the maelstrom of perspectives they deliver, as a presence on stage they are impossible to ignore. At some points they leap about the stage, grinning wildly at their fellow musicians, while at others they are freeze-frame still. Several times they bunched up, eyes screwed shut, shaking as if struggling to contain the emotion and power of the words that kept flowing. At several others they were upright, at the edge of the stage, staring the audience down, leaving us no escape from the power of their message. Their energy was awe-inspiring – I’ve never seen so much anger, anxiety, love and conviction expressed by one person. At the end of the set they went off stage with an arm round Carey, visibly exhausted, drained. How do they do it? In the room, it felt as if they had no choice. They are driven by necessity. These are truths that must be spoken.
And the necessity is passed to the audience. These are truths that must be taken to heart, born in mind, acted on and shared. The single thing about this performance that has stuck with me the most is its directness, its determinedness in conveying its message. This quality is carried in Tempest’s captivating, cutting lyrics, in the intensity of the music and the lighting, in the musicians’ refusal to acknowledge the cheers and shouts from the crowd until their work was done. At the very end of Tunnel Vision, the album’s last track, the first person singular breaks in. Tempest, having spent the rest of the set acting as a vessel, a lightning rod for a storm of emotion and meaning, enters themself with a cry of their own, for just a few lines: “I’m out in the rain / It’s a cold night in London / And I’m screaming at my loved ones to wake up and love more / And I’m standing in a room full of strangers, telling them to do what they know is right: to wake up, and love more”. That last line is not on the album, of course. It was Tempest’s personal call to action.
Back at the start of the set, after refreshingly requesting that no one get their fucking phones out to film, Tempest had echoed what many have said recently in calling these “the most divided times I’ve known”. That they are, but the answers lie right there in their work. You might call them a prophet, a visionary, a living mystic, but what matters is that they speak the wisdom we need, wisdom we can trust. “When we gonna see that life is happening? / And that every single body bleeding on its knees is an abomination / And every natural being is making communication / And we’re just sparks, tiny parts of a bigger constellation / We’re miniscule molecules that make up one body”.
After it was all over, I found an old friend in the crowd, and we tried in vain to express an appropriate response. We got as far as “Incredible,” and “Genius,” and then lapsed into silence. On that night, and every other night of this tour, many voices and one had said all that needs saying. Having listened, there is no more to do but pause, breathe, wake up, and love more.
Featured image via kaetempest.co.uk