“I love everything that flows,” Henry Miller once wrote, “everything that has time in it and becoming.” Working across plays, novels, poetry, and music, Kae Tempest’s output is equally besotted with the caprices of language, the work of an artist whose lyrical flow is consistently as refined as any battle-rapper in the business. On their new album ‘The Line Is A Curve’, the South-East Londoner’s talents are frequently on show, though occasionally tempered by a lack of momentum.
At its high water marks, Tempest’s wordplay is breathtaking. ‘Salt Coast’ finds them effortlessly weaving between evocations of nature and rejections of flag-waving conservatism: references to “the tyranny and hate of ‘Britannia Rules The Waves’” are followed a few lines later by “the browning of your leaves and the greening of your rain”. The key phrases are lingered over in their delivery, and the result is majestic.
There are moments of urgency, too, though for the most part they’re passing storms. Lead single ‘More Pressure’ is another astonishing career highlight, Tempest’s powerful delivery rendering the guest rap from Brockhampton’s Kevin Abstract something of an afterthought, while opener ‘Priority Boredom’ channels the white hot energy of 2014 breakthrough album ‘Everybody Down’.
In a letter accompanying the album, Tempest named its major themes as “resilience, acceptance, surrender,” and those moments are palpable on certain tracks: the despair of Fontaines D.C.’s Grian Chatten’s verse on ‘I Saw Light’; the battle-worn survival spirit of ‘Move’; the quiet release of closing song ‘Grace’ (“I’ve stopped hoping, I’m learning to trust”). What’s missing in places is Tempest’s ability to thread a narrative through seemingly disparate tales, as they did so effectively on records like ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’.
Glimpses of those biographical sketches arrive in the form of ‘No Prizes’, documenting an aspiring creative who “used to think music would protect me” before the industry broke them, a reminder of the 4.18am profiles that punctuated their 2016 record. Unfortunately, an uninspired middle section sees the new album instead detour through woozy psych-rock (‘These Are The Days’) and a poetry-jam musing that pitches for vignette brevity and comes across as simply half-finished (‘Smoking’).
Tempest is keen for this album to be viewed as part of the same body of work as their non-fiction book ‘On Connection’ and stage adaptation ‘Paradise’, and with good reason. All three were released under their new name, and each explores themes of identity with their trademark precision and eloquence. What ‘The Line Is A Curve’ teaches us is that Tempest is still capable of tremendous feats of lyricism and dynamic storytelling; if its inconsistency feels a little frustrating at times, it’s perhaps testament to the flow that bound together previous records with such success.
Words: Matthew Neale
Dig This? Dig Deeper: Kevin Abstract, Loyle Carner, sleaford mods
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