Tonight’s gig begins a cappella, in space. We are standing in Manchester’s storied Ritz venue, but for the few minutes of Picture a Vacuum – the first track of Kate Tempest’s most recent album, Let Them Eat Chaos – we could be in a planetarium, or a documentary narrated by Brian Cox, or David Attenborough.
The solar system is dangling in a dance around the sun’s light, “gold as a pharaoh’s coffin”. Our blue bauble “soothes” its “sharp burn”. There are thematic, if not musical, shades here of Björk’s Biophilia, of awe at the natural world. Some people find this sort of thing pretentious – chiefly the sort of people who prefer their hip-hop fixated on a narrow range of brutish subjects.
Those people have not bought tickets. This is a whooping, whistling room full of love for every felicitous turn of Tempest’s phrasing. On Grubby, for instance, a lost lover is a thorn. “She’s carried her, stuck in her side, since the day that she was born,” remembers Tempest. “She dreamed of her and knew her shape before she saw her form.” They also cheer for every rant about the parlous state of the world – some less deft, but no less sincere.
Suddenly, we are telescoping down to the planet’s surface. The band throw in some sound effects. “Uncurl yourself,” commands Tempest. “You are dressed in the fashion.” We’ve crash-landed in a metropolis at night – Tempest’s native London on record. Tonight, Manchester.
Tempest is, technically, a performance poet – somewhere between a battle rapper and something more academically acceptable, one who won a Ted Hughes award in 2013, who also publishes novels. This incarnation finds her playing director of photography as well, guiding our eye to the wakeful scenes unfolding in seven houses on one street, nailing the colour of “nicotine gold” up the “rickety stairs”.
Maybe it’s the season, but the authorial voice here is a little like the ghost of Jacob Marley in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, an omniscient narrator-character, editorialising the action, pushing the characters along. More than an album, Let Them Eat Chaos is a film told in rhyme, short stories rapped in a London vernacular, familiar from grime. The fact that these intonations are coming out of a white woman troubles some commentators – chiefly, those who did not grow up in the bits of London where black cabs don’t go. (It’s not “mockney” if that’s how you and your friends speak.) As with Anohni’s recent Hopelessness, these songs take the slow-mo current apocalypse and set it to beats, taking in recession, gentrification, environmental catastrophe, foreign aggressions and refugee crises. There are jokes, too, about emojis and drugs.
Tempest and her three-strong band play the album end to end, prefaced by a few words, and with an unreleased, untitled song as a finale. Her biggest gig to date “in this part of the world”, Tempest boggles that “this feels like a big deal”. (It is: this niche artist has just booked Brixton Academy for May) She urges everyone to pocket their phones.
Then it’s into the world of Gemma on Ketamine for Breakfast, who falls for bad guys; Alisha on We Die, talking to the ghost of someone dear – her partner? – who died violently. There’s Pete, staggering home after a bender on his big party tune Whoops, reaffirming those comparisons between Tempest and Mike Skinner of the Streets. It’s 4.18am and these flawed people are awake. Somewhat inevitably, a supernatural storm is coming that briefly unites them on their rainy, pre-dawn street.
Inevitably, some tracks are better than others. The music takes a while to settle, spending a few songs in a cluttered fug that suggests competing DJ bars in the 1990s, more than the melange of rappable styles of 2016. Everything takes an uptick with Europe Is Lost. “Top-down violence/Structural viciousness”, spits Tempest. She calls “bullshit!” on all of it, rising to the sort of pace where you want to apply ice to her tongue.
The tension ebbs and flows, until Tempest is kicking off her own shoes when her characters wear “one shoe, one slipper”.
Tunnel Vision, the final reckoning, finds us back with natural science, with people as nodes in a greater electrical whole. Tempest winds down, purposely you suspect, to one-word exclamations: “Justice! Recompense! Humility!”
We need to “wake up, and love more,” she concludes. Conscious artists – writers, folk singers, rappers – have been saying this sort of thing since the year dot, of course. But now is a pretty good time to hear it again.