It used to take me about 45 minutes to listen to an album; nowadays it takes me at least a week. I find it hard to summon the patience and attention necessary to engage with new music. This would have been unimaginable when I was 15 and obsessed with music. Then the thought of some sort of supermarket sweep in a record shop would have been beyond my wildest dreams. But since the initial smash-and-grab of filesharing in the early part of the last decade it’s become clear to me that music so easily obtained is also easily discarded, and much harder to develop that deep connection with it that came from having invested the proceeds of my paper round. Nowadays even when someone sends me or shares something it often feels like a chore to have to listen to it, and I know the same is true when I share songs with others.
Of course, I could, as most do, walking around listening to music. Creating your own soundtrack to overlay reality often feels like a cinematic experience, one which remakes the world with you at its centre, dramatising time and space with you cast as the hero, or at least the protagonist. As Will Self explores in this Guardian piece, it does so at the cost of setting you apart from your immediate physical and social environment, providing:
…a soundtrack that our walker can choreograph all the traffic to, human and vehicular, her deft, darting eyes seamlessly stitching order out of the chaos so that everything around her skips to her divinely ordained beat.
Also, until very recently I had an ongoing ear problem which made listening to headphones an irritatingly imbalanced experience. Add to this the presence of a new baby who needs to sleep but isn’t always aware of the fact, and my music intake has been severely reduced.
In all this media saturation, with pretty much all recorded music and film available at a twitch of the thumb, it’s inevitable to have blind spots. I’ve always enjoyed those moments when I realise there’s something or someone – a writer, group or director – whose work I’ve been aware of but never focussed on. It often takes concerted effort on behalf of someone else to make me really listen to something. When a friend told me last summer she was excited about going to see Kate Tempest in concert, it failed to register. I vaguely thought she was some sort of folk singer in the same breed as Mumford & Sons. It was only when another friend emailed last week insisting that I watch a BBC performance of her album ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ that I forced myself to actively pay attention, and even then it took me a week of interruptions to get through the whole thing.
Over the ten linked tracks Tempest unfolds the story of seven young neighbours on a London street, perfect strangers to one another, each lying awake before dawn worrying about their lives as, unbeknownst to them, a huge storm approaches. She articulates fears that reflect mine and doesn’t shy away from themes that (should) make people uncomfortable: climate change, immigration and racism. She does so in a way which is not optimistic but is certainly compassionate to the plight of her characters. Her tone is impassioned but also thoughtful, and her eye is acutely attentive to those details of our private and shared landscapes which are often overlooked or hidden away. She chooses an appropriate scale for the gravity of her themes, moving vertiginously between the cosmological and the mundane, from images of the wounded planet to the everyday drudgery of worrying about the demands of the working day.
I’ve seen comparisons to the Streets concept album ‘A Grand Don’t Come for Free’, in terms of the scale of the project and the urban themes. There are more recent reference points but I’m only loosely aware of. In a typically vituperative tweet the Sleaford Mods dismiss her as derivative of artists like Jamie T and Lady Sov. I think it’s a shame they don’t engage more with her work as they have a lot in common. I’ve long enjoyed their work but have only heard odd songs. Luckily the release of their new album has coincided with both my discovery of Kate Tempest and the (disgusting) resolution of my hearing difficulty to make a useful comparison possible.
Both artists seek explicitly to accurately represent working class concerns in 2017. Visually the Mods are a punk Pet Shop Boys mixed with the insouciance of the Gallagher brothers. Musically they appear rudimentary in their dependence on beats, basslines and samples, but they make very inventive and compelling use of that limited palette. The ostensive sparseness of their sound puts me in mind of post-punk – a lot of their tracks recapture the sound of 1980, while others make more direct reference to hiphop. As with Tempest, Wu Tang Clan are a direct inspiration.
Like Die Antwoord (another group which I like but rarely actually listen to), they initially seemed to be a novelty act with a limited number of tricks but whose serious intent has become more apparent. Nevertheless there is a strong component of comedy to what they do. There are echoes not only of avin-a-larf late punk bands like Sham 69 but also of K*nt and the Gang and even (when we get to the chants of ‘you fat bastard’ the Macc Lads. Jason Williamson shares some of Tempest’s poetic acuity, with many of their songs picking up on aspects of contemporary British life which it is genuinely surprising and refreshing to hear articulated in song – references to chain pubs, welfare cuts, closed-down shops, stoned trips to the corner shop and military fitness abound. Until recently, the tone has been consistent. It’s one of sneering undercut by anger and sadness. Their default mode is to rant and condemn. On the recent album a more plaintive and oblique mood has crept in, but it remains a very blokish vision, harsh and unforgiving. For all their progressive credentials, it sounds to me very much like the rage and hurt which John Harris identified in this must-see talk as key to the Brexit vote*.
Then there’s the humour, in all its joyous abusiveness. When I first heard ‘Jobseeker’ I thought it sounded like Modern Toss on record. Others have made the same connection. Several characters created by the Brighton cartoonists are present in Sleaford Mods tracks. They are the musical version of the disaffected-to-the-point-of-obnoxiousness figures represented in the Work, Customer Service, Drive By Abuser, Mr Tourette and Alan cartoons. Both Sleaford Mods and Modern Toss present a Britain in which a precondition of almost any job is that you have to regard and treat other humans as resources, and thirty years of neoliberal managerial doctrine in every area of our lives has encouraged us to view each other primarily as means to an end. What results is (in everyday life) deeply unpleasant and (on paper or record) hilarious insouciance, a principled refusal to treat other people and the social roles they embody with due respect.
This is partly due, then, to the alienating effect of bureaucratising language, as identified by Mark Fisher in ‘Capitalist Realism’. It is an expression of what he calls ‘reflexive impotence’, especially prevalent among those who have been educated in a system which emphasises very narrowly-defined notions of success, promoting individual ‘entrepreneurship’ at every turn and dismissing the notion that society has any responsibilities towards its members. It is also related to the spirit that Momus identified in his classic rant about a visit back to the UK, a place where ubiquitous marketing promotes addiction and competition as central metaphors for understanding and responding to reality and treating others:
We stop at a filling station on the Shoreditch High Street to buy some food. A homeless man is sitting at the entrance. ‘Spare some change, please? Spare some change?’ A black man gets out of a BMW and comes over to reform him. ‘Look at yourself, mate, you’ve got to stop using the stuff. Go to a gym, man, do a workout, get out of this state you’re in, it’s a fucking shame on you, man!’ He’s a winner, the junkie’s a loser. Go to a gym, start a business, buy a BMW, join the winners. It’s dog eat dog.
This imperative to think about life as a competition is also present in the lives of Tempest’s characters, but in her case she cares for them and is considerate of their vulnerabilities, unpleasant as the individuals may appear on the surface. This is partly a question of empathy. For all the acuteness of their observations Sleaford Mods don’t have that. Instead they rail against individual manifestations of all they despise. Their songs are mostly directed against particular targets – with scabrous wit and undercut by despair, but without the generous insights integral to Tempest’s work.
Both artists address and articulate the bleakness of a society which promotes consumerism as a means of aspiration, the alienation inherent in a worldview and way of life which regard branded sneakers and two-for-one offers on cans of Strongbow as worth living and dying for. For me, a constant implicit presence in the recent work of both is the riots of 2011, which I believe have a curious and underexplored relationship to the Brexit vote. Zygmunt Bauman attributed them to the phenomenon of ‘frustrated consumers’: mainly young people who had grown up inculcated in the belief that one’s worth and identity is realised through the acquisition of prestigious material goods, but denied the means of acquiring any means of doing so legitimately and blamed for their failure, one which society – in the form of the education system and the media – absolves itself of all responsibility**. John Harris’ talk makes clear how that pattern operated on a larger scale, and with more widespread and long-lasting effects, in relation to Brexit.
Although contrary to what the Guardian review of ‘English Tapas’ says, it is not the first ‘post-Brexit’ album (that honour goes to Momus), the work of both Kate Tempest and that of Sleafords Mods provides a very good guide to what JG Ballard called the ‘unacknowledged present’ of the UK today, to those subjacent pressures, manifest in all of our lives to a hideously unequal degree, that are prone to break through in unexpected and unpleasant ways. While the Sleaford Mods’ vision is conditioned mostly by bitterness and despair, Kate Tempest’s is tempered by compassion and a spirit of goodwill towards our vulnerabilities.
* This post marks the 312th time I have linked to that talk.
** Ditto for the Bauman article.