Ghostpoet: I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep review – dark but defiant

Since his last outing, the south London musician and producer has eased up and moved to Margate. Yet this atmospheric return still carries the weight of the world

Ghostpoet – the brooding alias of south London-born Obaro Ejimiwe – is roughly a decade old this year. This dour bard has long been an artist ahead of his time. A track such as Cash and Carry Me Home, one of the highlights of his eclectic, jazz-inflected debut album – 2011’s Peanut Butter Blue and Melancholy Jam – defied genre as it mourned the self-inflicted pain of one drink too many. It now locates Ghostpoet as roughly adjacent to the south London jazz renaissance of the past few years – a multi-hyphenate scene in which most things go. Were it to be released today, its languorous, self-aware aperçus would find an even more receptive audience.

Ghostpoet I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep artwork

Ghostpoet has also proved to be an artist very much of his times, soundtracking both the encroaching dystopia around us and the blasted heath within. He is an artist out on a limb, who rightly bristles at lazy assumptions that his music is in any way “urban” or – despite a tendency to half-speak some lyrics – “rap”. A handful of records, in which Ejimiwe brought in more guitars and live instrumentation, followed throughout the 2010s, alongside collaborations with Massive Attack and Africa Express; 2015’s Shedding Skin was, like his debut, Mercury-nominated. These outings refined a songwriting lens that unerringly located the most difficult emotions, as though Ghostpoet were wearing what the Cure once referred to as “carnage visors” – the very opposite of rose-tinted spectacles.

With his own owlish eyewear, Ghostpoet very much presents as a professor of pain. His last release was 2017’s Dark Days and Canapés, and when that record’s promotional cycle ended it prompted a recalibration. Ejimiwe defied expectations again and moved to Margate to open a coffee shop. It hosted gigs in the evening; he also started a radio station to broadcast them.

This time spent building community and achieving something tangible has served Ghostpoet well, musically. Every track on this 10-song return was written, arranged and produced by Ghostpoet himself; a handful of female vocal counterpoints provide texture. The instruments he marshals are themselves eloquent; and although his music continues to tend towards sombre hues, it never quite wallows in cliche. From the offbeat clang of guitar a few seconds into the opening of Breaking Cover to the keening washes on the closing track, Social Lacerations, Ejimiwe musters not just atmospheres but production detail: sonar bleeps, thousand-yard-stare chords, goth basslines, discreet pianos, unexpected jazzy incursions (as on Black Dog Got Silver Eyes) and what sound like wooden sticks and hand drums.

His concerns remain weighty. From the title in, this is a record concerned with anxiety and depression, about resisting the urge to jump off cliffs. There are songs about the rise of the far right (Rats in a Sack) and how hate traps people in an exhausting dance (This Trainwreck of a Life). Although he opens the album with victorious defiance – “I am alive!” – it’s not long before Ghostpoet’s black dog slips its leash again.

At its peaks, Ghostpoet’s turns of phrase offer up refreshing side-eyes at familiar, if unexpected, subjects. “Though I canter through the valley of snakes/ I fear nothing but the VAT and the tax,” he harrumphs on Humana Second Hand. “Hungoverboard” is a self-explanatory new coining on When Mouths Collide. Here, despite birdsong, the keyboard line sounds like a church bell tolling the death of a relationship. A harsh slipping noise underscores the song’s loss of balance, and a quasi-fanfare cuts jarringly across the melody.

Watch the video for Concrete Pony by Ghostpoet.

Sometimes, everything combines arrestingly: sounds, words and resonance. Ghostpoet’s delivery on the claustrophobic Concrete Pony has an uneven rhythm that catches the ear. He throws out some great lines in an incidental mutter. “There is nothing/ Fade to black/ End credits roll/ Thank the financiers.” A wistful piano and a blare – klaxon meets whalesong – underscore the song’s distress.

Where this record falters is when Ghostpoet’s writing turns prosaic, and when the echoes of other artists become impossible to ignore. When Ejimiwe pairs his seen-it-all drawl with that of a younger, female foil, as he does occasionally here, the combination can’t help but recall the duets of Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird on the former’s Maxinquaye album.

Sometimes, Ghostpoet’s writing is barely that. “Once again, the happy pills ain’t doing shit,” he offers on Humana Second Hand – just one instance where this artist’s observations of the everyday remain mundane. Littered throughout these songs are over-familiar grumbles about mobile phones and social media “likes”.

On Dark Days and Canapés, Immigrant Boogie railed with sardonic compassion at the plight of refugees. And here, the dissonant but energetic Rats in a Sack addresses the scandal of the Windrush generation, repurposing the “out means out” chant of the Brexit campaign as a chorus. So while despair may be his default mode, and foreboding his specialist subject, it is righteous anger that lifts Ghostpoet out of his well-appointed torpor here.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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