Young Fathers talked a big talk about making a pop album in the build-up to their first release off the back of winning the Mercury Prize for last year’s Dead. The album they’ve created isn’t a pop album. It’s brilliant, but not pop. It’s an album that strives to be pop, but ends up torn between that urge to create something joyous and the need to voice deep-seated resentments. Last year’s 1989 by Taylor Swift reminded everyone what great pop should be – invigorating, fun, and hopeful; Young Fathers don’t pull that off, but you can feel the longing to. It makes music that’s just as powerful as the best pop, but with something to say too.
Beyond the platitudes Young Fathers become a more difficult act to talk about. The first question is probably one as simple as “What are they?” Prior to their Mercury Prize win they were billed as rap or hip-hop – both of which are accurate, but incomplete. Their sound draws from too many touchstones to talk about, but perhaps their closest relative is the chaotic, tuneful collages of TV On the Radio. Their music bursts with the same feverish excitement and invigorating unpredictability, channelling aggression, longing, hope and, heartbreak into an enthralling mix.
It’s music that can drift from the “interesting” (read: jarring, dense, not necessarily tuneful) to the genuinely pretty. Take album opener Still Running, a song that opens, as any bold album would, with a bold statement: “Tonight I don’t love God.” From there the song is a clamour of voices over wailing guitar, Suicide-esque beats, and a wonderful sounding xylophone. It’s already an eclectic mix, thrown together in a propulsive song about loss, regret – the usual sad stuff. It’s performed emotively, but the vocals sit disingenuously with the music, albeit to great effect. The track bursts to life as it nears its conclusion however, as powerful, resonant piano enters the fray, lending a scale and emotion to match the vocals. It’s a trick repeated across the album and their use of piano almost universally outstanding.
It’s an album where a choral swell of “What you do to feel better?” can be followed by a bark of “Nothing but a barefaced lie / Is all you cunts can hold on to,” and nothing feels amiss. It can shift from the atonal, heavy mess of Feasting into the sprightly, soulful 27. It can brood and breed ecstasy in the same moment, but always feels coherent. There’s a palpable mood to the album, a sense of tension, but also of immense longing. It’s more of the dualism that flows through the album, the two sides criss-crossing across tracks. It can overwhelm with its overflow of ideas and sounds, but it never becomes too much. If anything the album finds itself strongest at its middle, although sole dud Dare Me (still good for a dud) halts the flow of the album just as it comes to an end.
More than anything, however, the shifting, unpredictable White Men Can Be Black Men Too breeds energy. A far cry from the pointed lethargy after collecting their prize, Young Fathers’ music never seems like a half-measure. It brims with passion – some of it the romanticism of Nest, some of it the angst of Old Rock N Roll. The album channels this energy and passion into music that may not be the statement on the nation that Kendrick Lamar’s latest was, but, as an expression of unique artistry, it’s just as compelling.
Also, how invigorating is it to listen to an album where the tracks released in the build-up aren’t the standouts? I’m looking at you Vampire Weekend, Villagers. No one should go into an album liking two or three songs and come out only really liking those same songs. None of their pre-release songs even make my suggested listens – how’s that for strength in depth? Young Fathers nail the length of this thing too. I’m a firm believer that albums should but rarely go over an hour, and look down on anything over about 45. This is roughly 39, the same territory as Pet Sounds. If ending on a comparison to Pet Sounds isn’t endorsement enough then truly nothing can sell this album. Mercury Prize number 2?