Because I like almost everything about Kate Tempest and her music/poetry (she won the Ted Hughes Award for poetry before she made her name as a rapper), I was less dismayed than usual to read early reviews of this album describing it as “more personal”. Despite many, many claims to the contrary, in my experience “more personal” usually means “less interesting” – if your name’s not Beyoncé, that is. The fact is that most artists are not as interesting as they think they are. We all have our own personal issues, problems, and crises to deal with in our lives; these can seem monumentally important to us, which is what drives artists to share such crises. Yet it takes a rare artist to relate these in such a way that it doesn’t come across as dull, cloying or self-pitying. Most artists are better off creating characters and stories as a prism to shine the light of their emotions through.
Yet I suspect that Kate Tempest is interesting: a self-made artist who grew up in south east London and performed at open mic nights from the age of 16, who raps and performs spoken word pieces and deliberately blurs the distinction between the two, and who claims that two of her influences are James Joyce and Wu-Tang Clan, probably has some stories to tell. What’s more, she has a way with words that should protect her from being dull, cloying or self-pitying in her “more personal” work: Everybody Down and Let Them Eat Chaos, her two previous albums, are spellbinding in their masterful use of language to nail down multifaceted characters. They’re great, just great, and should be sought out immediately.
The Book of Traps and Lessons is not up to the level of those. But despite all that talk about being “more personal”, the main problem here is musical, not lyrical. Hauling in Rick Rubin to produce was a good idea, but it’s not clear how that famous producer actually challenged her: the music here is even more minimal than it ever has been before on Tempest’s albums; quiet piano and unobtrusive breakbeats form the main backdrop to her poetic musings. Nary a snatch of melody or a burst of compulsive rhythm can be found. Instead, the album’s main impression is of an eerie, desolate collage of different musical snatches, many of which can hardly be described as “musical” at all. The only time it might catch your ear is on “Lessons”, when the opening synths come menacingly in, sounding an awful lot like the Stranger Things theme. Intentional homage or not, it’s appealing; everywhere else the music is distinctly anti-appealing.
I use the word “anti-appealing” because I suspect the choice to be minimalist to the extreme was deliberate – whether it was Rubin’s or Tempest’s. I suspect that it was Tempest’s, because it follows the trajectory of her musical career so far, which has become increasingly less sprightly and catchy, from Everybody Down to Let Them Eat Chaos to this.
Fine, that’s her prerogative as an artist, and anyway we mostly come to Tempest for her words and her powerful ability as a performer. And indeed, there are some moments of dizzying prowess on The Book of Traps and Lessons. There are lines that bite as hard as a Rottweiler and come back to haunt you later, especially if you’re a fellow British citizen appalled by Brexit: “It’s coming to pass, my country’s coming apart/The whole thing’s become such a bumbling farce/Was that a pivotal historical moment we just went stumbling past?” Being a fellow Brit myself, those lines have echoed in my head every time I’ve read the news since hearing them. Plus, to balance the political, there is a newfound romantic streak, which is what has led critics to their cries of “more personal!”, although how personal “I saw her cross the floor like a firework exploding in slow motion” is is up for debate.
Particularly exciting is when Tempest zooms in and out, from the micro to the macro, from the personal to the universal, as on “Keep Moving Don’t Move”, where the sexual longing and existential despair of the narrator (presumably Tempest) is interrupted by the refrain “Seven point four billion humans/Seven point five billion humans/Seven point six billion humans…” It makes the depiction of loneliness, despite or maybe even because of sexual contact, on that track seem all the more vivid and frightening. Tempest’s just a speck in the sea of an unimaginable quantity of humans, she realises. And that realisation makes her troubles drown her all the more profoundly, in a vast sea of sickening despair.
Tempest does come across as defeatist across most of the album. Dumbass politicians, drunken racists, rampant and soulless materialism, and the imminent threat of the destruction of the human race are all getting her down. You can hear it not just in her words, but in her performance: she has a habit across the album of pausing before the end of each line, and uttering the last one or two words in a softer, falling cadence, as if giving in to despair, as if losing the will to live in a sigh of desperation. It’s the sound of overwhelming, crushing depression.
Yet on another moments she rallies the troops of her vocal chords and forces them to enunciate clearly and forcefully, even at the end of the line, and comes through with a hard-won optimism that is endearing. It really is moving when she finds peace by looking at people’s faces in the last track, for instance. And then there’s this moment of spine-tingling hope at the end of the anti-capitalist screed “Hold Your Own”: “Breathe deep on a freezing beach/Taste the salt of friendship/Notice the movement of a stranger/Hold your own/And let it be/Catching”. Sure, this conclusion can come across as an unnecessary lecture to others on how to lead their life – an inevitability for an album that promises “Lessons”. But, that metaphor! The sea air? Gorgeous.
Moments like that are why many of us listen to music and read poetry. They help to make life worth living. Tempest has provided us with many such moments in her career. It just takes a bit longer than usual to uncover them on The Book of Traps and Lessons.