Following 2014's Mercury Prize nominated Everybody Down and the publication of her first novel The Bricks that Built the Houses, London poet, playwright and rapper Kate Tempest has returned with a new album Let Them Eat Chaos. The apocalyptic record, which is simultaneously being published as a long form poem, is further proof of Tempest's supernatural gift for storytelling, and broadens her focus into hard-hitting social commentary that could not be timelier.
Let Them Eat Chaos completely dispenses with the dividing line between spoken word poetry and rap. With producer Dan Carey returning to provide muscular beats reminiscent of the golden age of hip-hip - sometimes suggesting Grandmaster Flash or RUN-D.M.C. in their un-flashy single-mindedness - made queasy with the melodic knottiness of U.K. garage and grime, there is an equal focus on rhythm and texture. When the record begins on "Picture a Vacuum," Tempest's voice is completely unaccompanied, and slowly an otherworldly drone fades in.
The record begins with a long, slow, deliberate zoom in to where the action takes place. At first, Tempest's narrator is hovering out in space, taking in a beautifully rendered view of the earth and the people on it. On the following track "Lionmouth Door Knocker," we're on the streets of Tempest's native London as she builds a picture of the single block on which the story takes place. Rather than construct a flowing, fully fleshed out narrative as on Everybody Down, on this record Tempest instead uses finely drawn characters as jumping off points to describe her alarming vision of where the world is headed.
The record orbits around the single "Don't Fall In," an abstract piece spoken from the perspective of the coming apocalypse. The rest of the tracks focus on one or more of seven named characters, who Tempest effortlessly inhabits. Take, for example, party girl Gemma who rides one of the record's spikiest (but most foreboding) beats, drunkard Pete, whose monologue while stumbling to his door is accompanied by beats that sound any moment like they might fall down, or rich, successful Bradley whose consuming dissociation is delivered in a world-weary croak.
From these seven discreet but interconnected characters, Tempest leaps off into abstract and conceptual realms. The enervating and frightening "Europe Is Lost" is a panoramic and paranoid treatise on topics as diverse as drinking culture, the vapidness of the popular media, fear of terrorism, and the refugee crisis. Statements as bitter and pointed as "My very language is tainted with all that we stole to replace it with this," are balanced with pitch black humour and moments of ironic levity. Elsewhere, mourning and seclusion are explored on the downcast "We Die" and the gentrification of London detailed with disappointment on "Perfect Coffee."
By the time the record comes to a close and these seven characters come face-to-face, it doesn't quite feel that all these varied threads have been drawn together properly. There is still some slackness when things should be drawn tight. Despite what cohesion the record lacks, though, what is most absorbing is Tempest's incredible technical skill as a wordsmith and a performer. Even in small sections in which she is accompanied only by haunting melodies and textural sounds, she commands attention with a steady, confident flow, jawdropping internal rhymes and dazzling wordplay.
Referring back to "Europe Is Lost," the extraordinary "Tunnel Vision" brings the record to a cliffhanger ending. It is clear that Kate Tempest understands where her strengths as an artist lie, and throughout the record pulls focus on her remarkable lyrics. The beats are simplistic but effective in doing their job, which is anchoring the arresting vocals as they spiral and shatter across the record's many themes. Let Them Eat Chaos is a portentous warning that sounds like a thousand sirens; When Kate Tempest speaks, you listen.
Let Them Eat Chaos is out on CD, vinyl and digital formats on Friday October 7th.