by Roddy Howland Jackson
Let Them Eat Chaos
Kate Tempest, Fiction Records, 2016
Loyle Carner, Virgin EMI Records, 2017
There is a special irony in the status of ‘universal acclaim’ afforded to Let Them Eat Chaos and Yesterday’s Gone on Metacritic. This accolade, although well intentioned, strikes an uneasy chord with the pronounced fractures that run through these albums. Society may be united in its praise for these works, but these works do not envision a united society: neither artist holds much faith in the notion of the ‘universal’, instead quarrying the ‘individual’ in all its forms. Throughout Let Them Eat Chaos and Yesterday’s Gone, general societal needs are forced to contend with the more selfish habits of individuals, fostering a fractious cohabitation. The resulting tension is explosive, and deftly captured in the spoken-word music of Tempest and Carner: a probing, spasmodic, and ultimately democratic genre that needles surgically between what it means to be singular and what it means to exist within a group. This is a conflict judiciously explored by Tempest and Carner, their searches timely in this age of fragmentation and social disenfranchisement.
‘One of a kind’ is a trite description of any piece of art, but it can take on a peculiar resonance when read literally. It is a cliché too often wafted as a lazy bromide towards uniqueness, but, with a certain stubbornness, it can mean the inverse. ‘One’ is distinct from its ‘kind’, but also representative of it. Wordplay aside, it does not take much of a stretch to extend this ambiguity towards people: indeed, it is a stretch made by Tempest and Carner in these albums. ‘One’ person is singular, discrete, and yet they are also irremovable from their ‘kind’. As Tempest laments in ‘Tunnel Vision’, ‘you think you and I are different kinds, you’re caught up in specifics.’ The term ‘specifics’ hinges between the particularity of a ‘specific’ and the generality of being part of a ‘species’. The characters presented in Let Them Eat Chaos oscillate between this solipsism and shared experience throughout the album, rebounding uncomfortably to the frenzied tune of Tempest’s dubstep. Self-interest and instant gratification are the norm, but they are norms that bristle with a basic impulse towards empathy. By contrast, interconnectedness is abundant in the more mellow Yesterday’s Gone: from his album art to cameos from his family, Carner foregrounds the importance of nurture in shaping personalities. His individuality is sacred, but it operates in tandem with his community, a community that is itself awash with complications. Tempest’s and Carner’s album covers may be black and white, but their implications are technicolour.
Let Them Eat Chaos is formed around this tension, to the extent that even its structure is dictated in terms of individuality. Tempest will tell the tales of ‘seven different people in seven different flats’ who are all ruminating at 4:18 am, each sleepless neighbour ventriloquised in a separate monologue. There is something uniquely sinister about members of a community who are united only by their isolation, and it is a conceit exploited fully by Tempest. For example, ‘Ketamine for Breakfast’ offers us drug-addict Gemma, whilst ‘Whoops’ explores the drunken circularity in the life of alcoholic Pete. Of course, there are limitations to this assortment of voices, and Tempest includes songs to bridge the gaps between speakers. ‘Picture a Vacuum’ sets the tone for the album with an initially hopeful (but swiftly nightmarish) vision of Earth from space - ‘alienation’ takes on an uncanny significance here - before Tempest relates the storm that ‘Brews’ and ‘Breaks’ over the sleepers, uniting them in a streetside rainstorm. The daisy-chained pulse of ‘Don’t Fall In’ paints this cathartic gathering in insistent tones:
Now we’re not the dreaded storm that will end things
We’re just your playful, gale force friend in these end times
Come to remind you you’re not an island
Life is much broader than borders
But who can afford to think over the walls of this fortress?
Of course, it’s important to provide roof and floorboards
For you and yours and be secure in your fortunes
But you’re more than the three or four you go to war for
You’re part of a people that need your support
And, whose world is it if it belongs to these corporates?
The people are left on the doorstep, door shut
Nauseous and tortured by all that they’ve lost
Taut internal rhyme is a common feature of Tempest’s lyrics, condensing and constricting uneasily around the listener. In Carner’s ‘Florence’, however, the same rhythmic throb is employed to suggest a closeness, recalling the comforting family web around him. Tempest’s sleepers may be bracketed by their ‘borders’, but Carner’s outlook is ‘limitless’:
She could be my little freckled-face fidgeter, me but miniature
Sleeping on the sofa ‘till she tackles and I tickle her, the whisperer
I could be your listener, telling me your stories
But I’m showing her a signature, the scribbler
Saying that she’s finished but I tell her eat her spinach
And she’ll see the sky’s the limit, trust
‘Cause when we’re with it I can feel there ain’t no limit
Just be free, me and my sister, I can see the skies are limitless.
While any coming together in Let Them Eat Chaos is framed in terms of opposition, Carner describes a fondness between him and his sister: a charming symbiosis drawn in the balance of their rhymes. This exchange is perhaps a useful microcosm for the overall approach of Yesterday’s Gone: conceding different perspectives, Carner nonetheless demonstrates a plucky optimism that can transcend boundaries. In ‘Sun of Jean’, Carner’s mother soliloquises affectionately over her ‘scribble of a boy’ for more than a minute, while, in the music video for ‘Florence’, Carner is shown making a pancake to his grandmother’s recipe in real time. This is delightfully wholesome stuff, far removed from the shock factor of Tempest’s tirades: ‘Politico cash in an envelope / Caught sniffing lines off a prostitute’s prosthetic tits / Now it’s back to the House of Lords with slapped wrists / They abduct kids and fuck the heads of dead pigs.’ Volatile as it is, Tempest’s reliance on clickbaity polemicism is distinct from Carner’s sideways attention: remaining footloose throughout the album, he treats drugs and futility, student loans and even ‘bagels’ with the same sideways attention. Carner’s individual is a product of the home, not of the Malthusian dystopia circumscribed by Tempest. This is a disparity reflected in their stage names: ‘Kate Tempest’ exhorts a sense of turbulent power, whilst ‘Loyle Carner’ is nostalgic as a spoonerism of his real name, Benjamin Coyle-Larner.
Despite the varying levels of optimism raised in these albums, Let Them Eat Chaos and Yesterday’s Gone share the view that personal happiness is undermined by dogged individualism. Capitalism and climate change loom large here, but selfishness also features on a smaller scale. Tempest’s anarchic ‘Europe is Lost’ sees global concerns - climate change, Brexit and genocide - concealed in day-to-day consumerism:
The water level’s rising! The water level’s rising!
The animals, the elephants, the polar bears are dying!
Stop crying, start buying, but what about the oil spill?
Shh, no one likes a party pooping spoilsport
Massacres, massacres, massacres, new shoes
Ghettoised children murdered in broad daylight
By those employed to protect them
Live porn streamed to your pre-teen’s bedroom
Glass ceiling, no headroom
Tempest’s language can hardly be described as subtle: her function is more curator than creator, arranging fairly unoriginal buzzwords into a rhyming list. Her bathetic marriage of ‘oil spill’ and ‘spoilsport’, ‘crying’ and ‘buying’, and ‘massacres’ and ‘new shoes’ aptly captures the seam between individual purchasing power and wider capitalist abuse. In Carner’s ‘Stars and Shards’, selfishness is analogously corruptive: the ironically named ‘Sonny’ turns from innocence to drugs in a climactic fallout: ‘So let me start from the beginning, I’ll pad the middle with simple / Cutest of the children always displaying a dimple / Never talking out of line or defined as he fought the vine.’ Carner’s rhymes snowball across line breaks, suggesting a mindset that pollutes itself exponentially. Tempest’s misnamed Pius search for a similar purpose in one night stands: ‘I feel so grubby / Don’t want, can’t stop, just love me / Breath like a cigarette stubbed in the gutter / Come close, no, wait, don’t touch me, I’m ugly.’ (‘Grubby’). Tempest’s characters are paralysed between loneliness and participation, atrophied in the liminal state between being asleep and being awake. It is only through the active choice to commune in a rainstorm (recalling rebirth, or at the least, baptism) that they can ‘wake up and love more’ (‘Tunnel Vision’).
Transience is the nexus of this participation for Tempest and Carner, as it has to be accepted before the individual can make peace with society. In the accurately titled ‘We Die’, Tempest approaches a clarity in her treatment of things temporal. Grief is portrayed in subdued tones until it crescendos in a spasm of despair in the line, ‘When it happened, I couldn’t cry for ages / But when it hit me, I fucking screamed like a lion in a cage.’ The music accelerates at this point, developing from a stunted and circular beat into something generative and free-flowing. Alisha, who has lost her partner, mourns his loss in a confused state of denial. The hook - ‘I heard your voice aloud, it woke me up / I don’t believe in ghosts’ - haunts the song, evoking a mindset that cannot reconcile her life with the death of other people. In spite of this torment, Alisha eventually reaches a more stable position in her perception: ‘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, then pass it on.’ Bleak as it is, this conclusion essentially affirms the value of life while it lasts. Carner’s final track - ‘Yesterday’s Gone’ - revels in this evanescence, adopting the title from an unfinished work by his absent father. Repurposing his father’s music towards a constructive end makes up for the influence he feels he is lacking. At the lowest ebb of Alisha’s pain, Tempest describes her ‘spitting bars to the grass, and listening to the cars skidding past,’ implying a similarly remedial economy in artistic creation. Abandoning the ‘myth of the individual’ does not mean abandoning the complexities of a distinct personality, but instead, viewing them in a wider context. The symmetry between an individual and their surroundings is neither reflective nor negative: it is fractal and reciprocal.
This exchange, complicated as it is, ultimately foments a collaborative spirit between people. As a genre, spoken-word music is doing the same: As Tempest asserts,: it functions ‘in now / In fast / Kaleidoscopic vision.’ This ambition is not consistently matched by their artistic delivery: Tempest verges on unoriginality at times, her deadening dubstep offending your ears like her reused clichés; Carner’s choruses can be very repetitive, straying into stagnancy in tracks like ‘Stars and Shards’. Perhaps this is the point? The commingling of lyrical dexterity and clunky wordplay offers a neat microcosm for the wider issue at stake: individuality within a crowd. These artists are certainly emergent in the crowd of new musicians, boldly raising their heads above the parapet into a wider field of public perception. Presenting multiple voices from multiple perspectives and in multiple forms entangles notions of authority and selfhood in compelling ways, evoking something as fluid and collective as Tempest and Carner demand we be in these albums.
RODDY HOWLAND JACKSON reads English at Magdalen. He writes poems from the perspective of someone who is broken inside, which is okay, because he only has one kidney.
Art by Sophie Nathan-King