Kate Tempest: Let Them Eat Chaos review – pop, poetry and politics collide

Performance poetry might still be a niche concern, but Kate Tempest now gets to do hers on primetime TV – and deservedly so

She has been garlanded by everyone from the compilers of the Mercury shortlist to the judges of the Poetry Society’s Ted Hughes prize, but on paper at least, Kate Tempest’s new album still seems like a tough sell. It’s a 48-minute long hip-hop-influenced performance poem about the alienated lives of the residents of one south London street, set to a variety of post-dubstep bass music. It opens with an invocation of Mother Earth and ends with a plea for humanity to, as Primal Scream once had it, come together as one. In between, it variously takes aim at capitalism, gentrification, celebrity culture, political corruption and global warming (“the water is rising, the elephants and polar bears are dying”). There is a joke about David Cameron having it off with a pig’s head. It’s somehow redolent of the kind of well-meaning event you see advertised at a local arts centre and make a mental note to avoid at all costs – partly because it seems so painfully earnest, and partly because at least half the audience seems likely to consist of recalcitrant 14-year-olds dragged there by an English teacher who insists pupils call him by his first name and says things like “Siegfried Sassoon was the Lil’ Wayne of his day”.

But there’s a reason Kate Tempest has become the first poet to make authentic headway in the world of pop since John Cooper Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson the best part of 40 years ago; to cross the boundary from performances at the Edinburgh Fringe and, indeed, local arts centres to making albums that are eagerly awaited by people who don’t normally take much notice of performance poetry. There are plenty of talented people doing their thing at poetry slam events up and down the country, but only Tempest has been gifted an hour of prime-time terrestrial TV on which to launch Let Them Eat Chaos.

Performed live as part of last week’s BBC2 poetry night, and broadcast immediately after a programme in which Rick Stein talked about cuddly old John Betjeman and a variety of writers waxed whimsical about a train journey from Euston to Glasgow to a light orchestral backing, Let Them Eat Chaos understandably felt like a bomb going off in a chintzy tea shop. But even stripped of that context, it still sounds remarkably potent. You could argue that it offers a pretty well-thumbed checklist of liberal woes, but as Tempest’s voice gradually rises in anger over the clanking rhythm track midway through Europe Is Lost, it’s hard not to get carried along with it. That’s partly because, however unsurprising her targets, her writing is often brilliantly acute, not least on the solipsism of latterday pop culture: “Saccharine ballads and selfies and selfies and selfies and here’s me outside the palace of me.”

In fact, the rant that consumes the second half of Europe Is Lost is presented as the confused worries of a knackered professional carer, back home after a double shift – one of seven characters the poem depicts. They’re uniformly well drawn and believable, from a girl holding an internal dialogue with a murdered friend (“What’s it like where you’ve gone? It’s OK, I know you can’t say”) to a successful young businessman struggling to establish whether adulthood is now upon him, and what that might mean for his life.

At its most lighthearted, it vaguely recalls the Streets’ debut album. Whoops feels not unlike one of Mike Skinner’s tales of dancefloor excess recast for a more troubled era, with its protagonist’s intemperance fuelled by something dark in his past, and driven by the fact that he’s still stuck living with his parents: he might be making the wrong choices, but even if he were making the right ones, the property market means he’d still be there. Elsewhere, the pen portraits are powered by an eye for detail – Blu-Tack stains “grease the walls” of a flat about to be vacated; an apparently reformed hedonist recalls scrounging drugs from friends with “puppy-dog eyes for the acid on their fingertips” – and by the fact that Tempest knows when to leave the listener hanging: the dead friend may or may not be the father of the protagonist’s son; the hedonist may have reformed, but it isn’t entirely clear where that has left her life.

The words and their delivery are obviously the point of Let Them Eat Chaos, but they aren’t the only thing that makes it compelling. From the slowly pulsating electronic currents of Breaks to Perfect Coffee’s early Chicago house chug, the music is uniformly great. It’s never so showy that it distracts from Tempest’s voice – it doesn’t really do choruses – but equally, it’s never mere background music. It adds to the impressive sense of assurance that oozes off the album. In terms of visibility, Kate Tempest is currently way ahead of her performance-poet peers. Out on her own, she sounds like a woman who knows exactly what she’s doing.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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