Kate Tempest: The Book of Traps and Lessons review – living poetry amid the chaos of 2019

(American Recordings/Fiction)
Producer Rick Rubin has pared back the effects, giving Tempest’s songs about trying to love and dance through our current crises room to reach out

Kate Tempest’s latest record finds beauty amidst breakdown. The spoken word poet – whose last album, 2016’s Let Them Eat Chaos, was nominated for the Mercury prize – is known for her chest-thumping, rousing statements. But on The Book of Traps and Lessons, she takes a macro view of people (in one breath-catching moment she counts: “7.2 billion humans … 7.3 billion humans …”, and on), before zooming right in to the smallest of intimacies. On Three Sided Coin, she captures the current turbulence of the UK, a nation living “in the mouth of a breaking storm”; and then, quickly, the track unspools into the softer-edged I Trap You, a meditation on a broken-down relationship.

Super-producer Rick Rubin brings a new restraint to Tempest. From the beginning of the record, the music is peeled away like orange skin, leaving a spine-chilling a capella at its centre. All Humans Too Late features Tempest’s voice alone, her stark vocal mirroring her poetic theme of isolation; humans separating themselves, not saying hello on the train platform, yelling at each other on the internet. She reckons with the crisis that humanity as a whole is facing right now (“We’re dead – all of me knows it”), reels at the magnitude of it, expresses wonder that we’re not grieving this emergency.

By the following track, Hold Your Own, simple synth chords bolster Tempest as she leans forward into a shaft of light, a new sense of optimism. Her manifesto demands that the listener stop chasing capitalist fantasies – “this whole thing thrives on us feeling incomplete” – and look for the warmth in each other instead. This energy builds towards Firesmoke, a campfire love song that reduces the rest of the world to “ripples in the middle distance” in comparison to the sight of a lover, dancing. “There is something in this tenderness that makes me want to live.” This record is a living poem that captures the angry tension of being alive in 2019: trying not to look directly at the oncoming crises, trying to love and give and dance in the midst of firesmoke.


Aimee Cliff

The GuardianTramp

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