Beauty squares up to ugliness on the south Londoner's latest, and a tenderness that previously lingered on the edges of Tempest's work steps to the fore.
On her last album, 2016’s ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’, Kate Tempest zoomed in on a single south London street at 4:18am, and captured the mundane, everyday loneliness of seven disconnected strangers in a city crammed with strangers. Honing in on the minuscule details – a novelty doorbell, a lone slipper, a lion’s mouth door-knocker – there was a glimmer of hope at its heart. Tempest actually began work on this follow-up, ‘The Book Of Traps And Lessons’, back in 2014; enigmatic producer Rick Rubin was gripped by a TV performance of her spoken-word piece ‘Brand New Ancients’, and got in touch with the south London polymath, who also works across poetry, music, novels and theatre. The early demos held promise, but didn’t quite click – so Tempest and her longtime producer Dan Carey started making ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ instead.
Listening to ‘The Book Of Traps And Lessons’ now, the stepping stones between the two records are clear. This, too, is an album about hanging onto the people that we love, at all costs. And though the anonymous enormity of the world crops up again – “7.2 billion humans, 7.3 billion humans, 7.4 billion humans….” Tempest chants ominously on ‘Keep Moving Don’t Move’ – there’s a central tenderness that previously lingered on the edges of her work.
The figures closest to this record’s protagonist constantly take the form of gnarled trees: fingers become delicate twiglets, and naked toes set down roots. And togetherness is the force that continually grounds ‘The Book Of Traps And Lessons’ despite the dystopian soldiers that march across its drenched landscape. In ‘Keep Moving Don’t Move’ the pair link arms against the creep of gentrification – “The last real pub in the south is surrounded by wankers,” she says – while ‘Firesmoke’ captures the silliness and giddiness of new lust. “The fire rises between us, and makes us get on the wrong trains, walk the wrong way, make strangers smile greetings on Lewisham Way,” she smiles.
Countering these moments of warmth, ‘The Book Of Traps And Lessons’ also examines the traps we fall into trying to capture it elsewhere: the black holes of WhatsApp group chats, and the meaningless “beers in the sunshine” as a flailing attempt to stave off impending misery. And amid the joy and self-examination, there is despair – plenty of it. ‘Brown Eyed Man’ sees an innocent man shaken and beaten by the police – “He hadn’t done a thing/ But when they came/ Of course he ran” – and on ‘All Humans Too Late’, racists invade dinner tables and trains, highlighted by an onslaught of dissonant production murk from Rick Rubin. This gives the whole album the feel of a tussle between beauty and ugliness, which you suspect was exactly Tempest’s intention.
“I’m weak and I’m breaking, I stand weeping at the train station, ‘cause I can see your faces,” Tempest says in the final tenant, and finally optimism seems to break through. “I love people’s faces.”