Whether her politics are being worn on her sleeve or are squarely on the nose, the analogies usually adopted by broadsheets and tabloids to annotate the enigmatic Kate Tempest are reductive. An artist as multifaceted as Tempest belies lazy metaphor. Already an award-winning poet and playwright, she released her debut record, the Mercury-nominated Everybody Down, in 2014, and her debut novel The Bricks That Built The Houses earlier this year. Tempest’s influences range from William Blake to the Wu-Tang Clan. She’s collaborated with Yale and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and performed at Lassitude and Manhattan’s famous Nuyorican Poets Café. She acclimatises as the bohemian favourite of the literary establishment, but is more comfortable spitting bars in a clammy Brixton dive. I don’t think copy-and-paste commentary quite does the prodigious diversity of her work justice. She’s a talented speaker, but an even better storyteller; and on Let Them Eat Chaos her stories are wrought with estrangement and devastation.
On an anonymous London street, seven neighbours ignorant of each other’s existence are forced to communicate and cooperate when a great storm hits. Let Them Eat Chaos is a window into their individual despairs; their addictions, crumbling relationships and collective feeling of futility, but also a rallying cry to secede from disaffection and apathy and to passionately pursue human connection. As a concept album it follows a clearly defined narrative; each of the seven characters are arbitrated their own song, while an omniscient narrator – and even the storm itself – pick up the slack.
’Picture a Vacuum’ opens with the literal big bang before leaping billions of years to an earth populated by “pylons and mines… is it earth smiling or a tremor of dread?” It’s a jump recalling Stanley Kubrick’s infamous cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey from bone to spaceship, encompassing the cosmic trajectory of being in a single couplet, and just as boiling with confidence. Its successor, ‘Lionmouth Door Knocker’, catalogues a Dickensian checklist of London caricatures, before Tempest presents her ensemble. We’re introduced to Gemma on ‘Ketamine For Breakfast’ – peak Tempest in its portrait of working class bleakness – as well as the guilt-plagued Elise; Pia who seeks solace from heartbreak in one night stands; and Pete the clownish alcoholic who’s puppeteered by a beat as drunken as he is.
They’re personal appraisals, but I find the most interesting and affecting characters to be the paranoid Esther from ‘Europe is Lost’, the young professional Bradley off ‘Pictures on a Screen’, and the South-East local Zoey, being priced out of her first flat on the disdainfully named ‘Perfect Coffee’. Esther believes everything exists precariously, if it hasn’t already collapsed, “Europe is lost, America – lost… but there’s 2-for-1 drinks every night.” Esther is the personification of Theresa May’s “those just managing to get by”; overworked, underpaid, and hideously alienated. Bradley is the prototypical millennial; he’s got a “good job in PR,” exploits “Tinder and flings,” and “exercises regularly,” but he’s completely deprived of purpose, and feels no great joy or meaning in anything. Everything’s fine, nothing feels. ‘Perfect Coffee’ barely contains its simmering wrath. Zoey is a young local who no longer recognises her own suburb – “since when was this a winery/this used to be the bingo” – and, economically displaced, ironically moves to an area even more gentrified than her home. She’ll be “sipping perfect coffee thinking this is pretty good/while the locals grit their teeth and hum/another fucking one has come.” At my most restless I operate nominally between Zoey and Bradley, living as a 9-5 millennial in East London, visiting artisanal cafes and craft beer pop-ups while acutely aware of the disingenuousness of these cultural renovations.
Tempest revealed to The Guardian in 2014 that her career kicked off by “hanging around on picket lines, rapping at riot cops,” and the snarling viscerality of that idea is expounded here. Vocally she’s improved since Everybody Down, tackling a plurality of metrical voices convincingly while rooted in her traditional Cockney rasp. Her flow flits from one personality to the next, characterising her cast of characters by using appropriate arrhythmic agitation or stoned fatigue. On ‘Europe Is Lost’, Tempest – assisted by a thudding guitar echoing meekly as if reverberating off the peeling 70s wallpaper of her host – imitates Esther’s building anxiety in her accelerating tempo, spitting double, triple, quadruple rhymes with a nihilistic, overbearing sneer; “I can’t see an ending, only the end.” With Bradley she is deflective, reinforcing his profound indifference through repetitive allusions to house parties and jogs, and in deploying a liminal, languid ambience. The most kinetic transformation is on ‘Grubby’, where Tempest reproduces Pia’s heartache over losing The One with a guttural, increasingly dissonant desperation as she placates the vacuum through anonymous sex, where “she doesn’t love, she just devours.”
At times Let Them Eat Chaos can feel overstuffed. The finale, ‘Tunnel Vision’, is bombastic, but its recurrent invitation to “wake up” feels jarring and lecturing on a record manoeuvred by suggestive intimacies, while the insinuations regarding climate change alluded to on ‘Picture a Vaccuum’ are never seriously developed. These are minor quibbles however, only underscored by the otherwise steely coherence of an ambitious concept.
In a recent Loud & Quiet interview Tempest argued that her work isn’t prescient but present, citing Don DeLillo as an example; “He’s just noticing. He’s looking around and just noticing the things we take for granted every day. He’s looking and describing the kind of surreal, bizarre, strange, just hysterical nature of everyday life.” It’s true, the pathos ‘Europe is Lost’ has accumulated following its recording in November 2015 can potentially be as attributable with her other characters as it is with Esther. If millennial disaffection deepens or the boulevard of gentrification degenerates, will Bradley and Zoey prove just as clairvoyant? Regardless, their stories are indeed painfully present, lavish with unsettlingly familiar details. Channelling the vivacity of the Beatnik poets in her hurtling metre and arrestingly forensic imagery, Tempest unravels a modesty in the metaphysics all the more powerful for its naturalism.