Kate Tempest’s name is apt. Her rapped spoken word poetry is at once aggressive, vulnerable and unpredictable. It ebbs and flows and often threatens to overwhelm the listener in its matter of fact delivery. The naked honesty of her verse is incisive, disarming and has drawn inevitable comparisons to John Cooper Clarke and Mike Skinner of The Streets. Anyone who witnessed her absolutely captivating Brand New Ancients production with The Battersea Arts Centre, will know that these comparisons are at very least justified and, in fact, potentially sell her a little short. It’s hard to imagine that Mike Skinner could construct a modern day epic poem that follows the fortunes of two South London families, the goal of which is to act as a call to arms for the modern day hero.
Tempest grew up in Brockley, South London in what she described as a “shitty” end of town. She disliked her experience at secondary school but was turned on to poetry by her English teacher. Starting to perform at 16 while working at a record shop and studying music and poetry at Croydon’s Brit School and at Goldsmiths College, she went on to support John Cooper Clarke, Billy Bragg and Benjamin Zephaniah. She has previously released an album, Balance, with Sound of Rum and has published a collection of poems named Everything Speaks in it’s Own Way along with three plays: Wasted, Glasshouse and Hopelessly Devoted. Her epic poem, Brand New Ancients, won the Ted Hughes prize in 2013 while her second collection of poetry entitled Hold Your Own will be released in October. Her debut novel entitled The Bricks That Built The Houses, which follows the same narrative as Everybody Down, will be released through Picador in Spring 2015. Phew. Not too bad for a 27 year old with no A-Levels.
Like The Streets’ A Grand Don’t Come For Free before it, Everybody Down sports a narrative. The world that Tempest has created is populated by drug dealers, austerity and the complexities of love. Without giving too much away, the narrative mainly follows Becky and Pete and their troubled romance. Their’s is an existence of disappointment, morally ambiguous choices, deception and secrets.
Unlike A Grand Don’t Come For Free, the music on Everybody Down primarily services the narrative; you won’t find any big catchy choruses and plaintive balladeering here. It’s a largely minimal affair, consisting of simple beats, sparse synth lines, occasional bass lines and stabs of guitar, which enable the listener to focus on what Tempest is saying. Producer Dan Carey must be credited with recognising how essential it was to leave Tempest’s rhymes largely unadorned with distracting tinsel and baubles. His work is evocative of late London nights, drizzling rain and its simplicity is claustrophobic . It adds to the immediacy and intensity of Tempest’s delivery, without ever overwhelming her narrative.
In light of this, it is more than beneficial that Tempest’s skill lies in her creation of the believable characters that populate her plot. Her omniscient narrator allows the exploration of each character’s own skewed point of view. There is little in the way of judgement from Tempest; she primarily acts as the medium through which the story is told. This makes Becky’s justification of her job as a sex worker during “Theme from Becky”, and Harry’s explanation of his role as a drug dealer less contrived and ensures the characters are somewhat sympathetic regardless of their faults.
However, at times, the simple narrative language of the lyrics threatens to delve into monotony on occasion, “Miriam is finishing her wine, And Pete is asking for the spinach,” but is rescued with moments of clever wordplay such as the depiction of the depressingly ill-fated nature of relationships in “The Truth”. Here, Tempest utilises puns skilfully to illustrate the complications and confusion of love and relationships, “One thinks Two tried to devour, Everything that made One One, But Two thinks One got Two too wrong.” Such moments guarantee that events never dull for extended periods.
Despite the focus on narrative, character, and language, there are moments of genuine catchiness. “The Beigeness” laments the secrets we keep from each other, the petty things we hold so dear and the majority’s willingness to unquestionably to follow the other lemmings. However, this heady subject matter is tied inextricably to a bass line with genuine propulsion, giving the topic a sense of urgency but also ensuring it is melodically memorable. “Lonely Daze” is alternatively tender and acerbic, making sure the song has a genuine ear worm quality but is not rendered limp as a result.
Ultimately, it’s refreshing to experience a record that is so overtly concerned with socioeconomics and creating honest and relatable characters in a musical landscape that often seems bereft of such concerns for gritty realism. At its best, Everybody Down is absolutely riveting and electric. Tempest’s ambition and scope is admirable. Everybody Down is an integral aspect of a burgeoning young voice of 21st century Britain.
Everybody Down is released on May 19th via Big Dada.