All of our human desires, weaknesses and responses to pleasure, pain, and the pressures from the outside world mean that sometimes everything gets too much, argues Kate Tempest on her third album. There are traps to fall into and lessons to be learnt, and a lot of it is a weary, horrible process. She makes this point overwhelmingly on ‘Keep Moving Don’t Move’, the second track on The Book of Traps and Lessons. It’s a near six-minute stream of consciousness which begins with sex with a stranger and unfolds into all manner of things that we do to feed the constant senses of hunger and thirst that can sit inside all of us. The track is an example of what her poetry-music hybrid can do at its very best – transfix its listener with a mixture of powerful, relatable words and well-judged sonic atmosphere. It’s a high watermark that the album sometimes hits, yet sometimes struggles to sustain.
The crossroads of poetry and music that Tempest’s work sits at can both help and hinder her art. Poetry and popular music have similarities of course, but they’re two distinct art forms. Fans of one can find it easy to appreciate the other – for instance, both have the power to evoke emotion – but they’re different. Lauryn Hill and Lil’ Kim may be formidable wordsmiths but they’re never going to find a way onto the Key Stage 3 curriculum. Neither Elizabeth Barrett Browning nor Maya Angelou’s works would be enhanced by sticking a bassline or melody on them.
I make this distinction because few confound it like Kate Tempest. Her literary works have been published in nine languages and she has won a Ted Hughes award, yet her albums have earned two Mercury Prize nominations and wide critical acclaim from music critics. She’s the very definition of a ‘crossover artist’ and when Traps and Lessons hits the highs, it’s outstanding.
Opener ‘Thirsty’ is simply stunning. A minimal, swirling synth frames Tempest’s words of thirst and hunger for human connection (a recurring theme throughout the record).
The music is perfect: it seems to say as much about the narrator’s frame of mind as her words do, evoking ungrounded emotions in need of a place to land.
It sets up the aforementioned ‘Keep Moving Don’t Move’ which spews out these feelings in a visceral tirade of unfiltered resentment and despair at the modern human condition. It’s a very impressive one-two punch.
However, the distinct nature of her poetry-music style can mean that when it isn’t completely captivating, it can quickly lose the listener. Like in her previous work, Tempest’s worldview can be unrelentingly bleak at times, and while only the most delusional among us would claim that we’re living in a utopia, after a time some of these pieces feel like a rant that you’ve heard before.
Previous record Let Them Eat Chaos was rich in character stories concerning disconnected people and political strife, so at times here, I found myself looking for light in the darkness. ‘Lessons’ is the eighth track on the album, but by the time Tempest sighs “life is a chorus, it all gets so deafening sometimes”, the line’s succinct nature is tempered by the feeling that we’ve covered this ground before. ‘All Humans Too Late’ ditches the music altogether: a brave move which banks on the power of Tempest’s words to carry the non-poetry fans through. It works on the first listen, but we’ve already heard this message of human fallacy and on repeated plays it feels like a chore.
The album is sequenced around a light-dark principle: one song has an emotional viewpoint, largely focused on human connection and spoken from Tempest’s perspective, and the next has a bleaker tone, focusing on our collective rage and failings. Generally, it’s the warmer songs that work best. ‘Hold Your Own’ is crushingly relatable and moving. The vulnerable, affecting ‘Firesmoke’ is another highlight, with warm jazzy chords surrounding a tale of personal fulfilment. These are the songs which feel more like fresher territory for Tempest…
…the lighter songs are not always totally joyful, but they feel as if they offer a viewpoint that differs from the well-trodden darker ground.
Traps and Lessons ends with two of the record’s lengthier tracks, ‘Holy Elixir’ and ‘People’s Faces’. Here, once again, gloom plagues the former, while despair is accompanied by hope on the latter. It’s no surprise that the closer is the more powerful of the two. Yes, life isn’t all light, and the dark can make the better moments all the more worthwhile. But Kate Tempest has explored the dark before – and mostly better than she does here. This time it’s in the light where she really shines.
Words by Tom Burrows.