April 2018

Arts & Letters

Young Fathers’ ‘Cocoa Sugar’

By Anwen Crawford
The Scottish group’s third album proves they don’t sound like anyone else

Why are Young Fathers one of the best bands in the world? Because everywhere they go they arrive free of clichés, including the clichés you might associate with a hackneyed phrase like best band in the world. What do you hear when you hear that? Think again.

No lead singer, no lead guitarist, no defined musical roles. Instead, all three members of Young Fathers – Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham “G” Hastings – sing, shout, holler, croon, scream, hum, whistle and (sort of) rap, sometimes over the top of one another, sometimes taking turns. Their vocal parts can be so disparate that you’d swear each man was simultaneously fronting his own band in his own mind, and then all of a sudden they’ll converge, tightly enough that you can’t tell them apart. The musical logic is inscrutable, and infectious.

Added to this tumult is a specific palette of instruments: a squally analogue synthesiser; an organ or keyboard on occasion; shakers and floor toms. (Live, Young Fathers become a four-piece with the addition of touring drummer Steven Morrison, who plays a stripped-down kit standing up.) Imagine, if you will, the joyful energy of children inventing chants in the schoolyard, shaded by post-punk’s latent fury and then brightened again by tiny instances of pure boy band charm.

No floppy fringes, no winsome cheekbones, no sad love songs. (I love a band that doesn’t write love songs.) “Don’t you turn my brown eyes blue,” the group warn on “Turn”, a song from their third album, Cocoa Sugar, released last month. “I’m not like you / I’m nothing like you.” It’s no lie. Young Fathers aren’t like anyone else at all, which is a thing that can be said of hardly any of their musical peers. Their songs practically demand that you get up and move, but also that you pay attention. “Learn your lessons,” they warn again. Call them a hip-hop group at your peril. “That’s just a tag that we’re stuck with because of how we look,” Hastings once told the NME. “It’s borderline racist.”

Cocoa Sugar could mean black and white, could mean bitter and sweet, could mean something else altogether. Words are important to Young Fathers because their music is based so much in vocalising, but the meaning of the words isn’t all that’s at stake. It’s about the mulch. It’s about the mouth-feel. Cocoa and sugar are both rather gritty – a word that can stand in for granular or for tenacious. The band name comes from the fact that each member shares a given name with his father, but it’s also a clue as to the unsullied ebullience and preternatural seriousness that are equal forces within the group’s music. Their contradictions shouldn’t work, but they do: chaotic and choreographed, busy and austere, abrasive and melodious.

Young Fathers met on the dance floor of an Edinburgh youth club as 14-year-olds, in the early 2000s. (The more westerly Scottish city of Glasgow has given the world Primal Scream, The Blue Nile, Simple Minds, Kode9, The Pastels, Bert Jansch, Life Without Buildings and the brothers Young of AC/DC, among others. Edinburgh has given the world … Bay City Rollers. And Josef K, a rather dour post-punk band even by post-punk standards: no drunkenness, no stage banter, no encores. Group harmonies and intermittent severity – yes, it feels right that Young Fathers are from Edinburgh.) They spent their early days together writing songs in Hastings’ bedroom; Hastings programmed the beats using cheap software, and the three teenagers recorded their vocals with a home karaoke machine, sharing one microphone between them. Even now, with two mixtapes, three albums, one Mercury Prize, a collaboration with Massive Attack and multiple appearances on last year’s T2 Trainspotting soundtrack to their name, Young Fathers retain both a make-do spirit and a potent sense of urgency.

No gimmicks, no grandstanding, no easy messages. The members of Young Fathers give the strong impression of being “political” people: they have, for instance, previously refused interviews to the British tabloid press, on account of those papers’ right-wing tendencies. But within their music they refuse to be explicit, and therefore reducible, or paraphrasable. This, too, is a form of politics. Don’t ask me what the songs are about; I couldn’t tell you. I do know that those songs feel full of movement, surprise, anger and joy, and that a part of this joy comes from the group conducting a private musical conversation with one another, but in public. On their records and especially live – if you ever get the chance to see Young Fathers live, run, don’t walk – they are hermetic yet permeable, like the last gang in town but one eager for new members. Their polyphonic, leaderless style encourages a listener to imagine themselves joining in.

An example: buried within the YouTube search results for “Young Fathers live” is some shaky mobile phone footage of the group performing “Shame”, a song from their previous album, White Men Are Black Men Too (2015), and one of their most instantly appealing. The footage is from a show earlier this year in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana. Within 30 seconds of the song’s beginning one fan has got themselves up on stage, then there are two, then six, then two dozen people dancing, singing, and taking selfies with the band members, who meanwhile continue to perform without pause, as if this were the most ordinary and the most welcome thing in the world. “What you do to feel better?” sings everybody. “What you do to feel good?” Become a member of Young Fathers, obviously.

Cocoa Sugar is partly the result of what Young Fathers learnt by playing live, night in and night out, for the better part of five years, roughly from the release of their first mixtape, Tape One (2011, reissued last year), through their Mercury Prize–winning debut album, Dead (2014), to its follow-up and beyond. It is an album made by musicians who have come to realise that musical simplicity is difficult to achieve, and that simplicity is not the same thing as obviousness.

The sonic textures of Cocoa Sugar aren’t markedly different from those of Young Fathers’ previous work, but the songs move with greater ease. Take “In My View”, released as a single in January, which proceeds from a familiar base – analogue synthesiser, brisk percussive patterns – and then admits more space between the elements. It is also, unusually for Young Fathers, quite a melancholy song. “In my view / Nothing’s ever given away,” sings Massaquoi on the song’s chorus. (Young Fathers don’t always do choruses.) “I believe / To advance then you must pay.”

Though the song is full of feeling, it is also an examination of feeling. Before you feel too sorry for them, take a look at the accompanying film clip, which begins as a series of maudlin nothings (a woman crying, a lonely cowboy dancing) and ends as a deconstruction of these very images. “The Art of Making People Care” reads one of the title cards that flash onscreen as the shots pull out to reveal crew and camera. “Show Me Your Softer Side.” No indulgence, no false communality, no sentimentality.

The most piercing song on Cocoa Sugar is called “Tremolo” – an evocative, musical word, and one with multiple meanings. On the one hand, a tremolo – a trembling – is the distinctive “shimmering” sound made by a violinist or other string player who draws their bow rapidly back and forth while playing one note. It’s also an effect that can be produced by certain guitar amplifiers and pedals – technically speaking, a modulation that produces a change in volume, though the “shimmer” is comparable to the string player’s. Lastly, the tremolo arm on an electric guitar, also called a whammy bar, changes the pitch of a note, a technique more accurately described as vibrato. And so?

“Tremolo my soul,” sing (and shout, and speak) Young Fathers on their song, over a woodblock beat and a gently swelling organ. The vocals shimmer. The song on the whole is sad, defiant and strange. Souls that tremble, amplify and bend.

No scene, no trend, no genre. Young Fathers are one of the best bands in the world because they exist on the very edge of explicability and of belonging – a vulnerable, difficult place to be. A perhaps ecstatic place. (Ecstatic, from the Greek ekstasis. Put out of place. To stand outside oneself.) They are also, in the best sense, a pop band. It isn’t their fault that the bulk of contemporary pop is scarcely as adventurous as they are.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Photo by Julia Noni

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