Young Fathers ‘Heavy Heavy’ (Ninja Tune)

Weight Lifters

Edinburgh trio Young Fathers have never been inclined to make life easy for their listeners – or for those of us striving to construct a few sentences about them for the general public’s perusal. Landmark albums like ‘Heavy Heavy’ – the first in five years from the Mercury prizewinners (for 2014’s ‘Dead’), following 2018’s acclaimed ‘Cocoa Sugar’ – usually come accompanied by reams of flowery press notes dissecting meaning down to an atomic level. In this case, though, there’s little more than a couple of paragraphs.

Young Fathers – aka Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham “G” Hastings – formed in 2008, and ‘Heavy Heavy’ marks their fourth studio release. There are a few interpretations of what the album title might mean. It could reflect the grim state of post-Brexit, post-pandemic Britain, still wedded to Tory rule like some Stockholm syndrome sufferer. Perhaps it links to the album’s second track and recently released single, ‘I Saw’, which is seemingly about the blind eye turned to fascist bullying by those too scared to step out of line and into focus. Likewise, it may refer to the added responsibilities that the considerably more grown-up Young Fathers now find heaped on their shoulders. After all, ‘Geronimo’ does contain the line, “Being a son, brother, uncle, father figure / I gotta survive and provide”.

Clearly, not for nothing does Bankole advise us, “You let the demons out and deal with it / Make sense of it after”. But the biggest clue lies in the word “soul”. It crops up several times in the group’s official biography, and if we ignore its more usual, lazy usage – too often merely a byword for any kind of Black influence in music – and bore down to its roots in gospel, there is a clear comparison. Namely, that soul is something felt, not understood. A rapture, a rising ecstasy that’s unmistakable, but hard to sum up in words.

‘Heavy Heavy’ certainly has soul in spades. Opening track ‘Rice’ paints a picture of a diaspora on the move – “Seven hundred thousand bumpkins on the transit line”. The massive chorus explodes, “These hands can heal”, sounding as though it’s sung by a choir of hundreds. It’s sunny, optimistic, and empowering – a surprise, given the raw anger the band are more usually associated with. ‘I Saw’ follows, and it’s a clear shift again, with its distinctly 1970s groove immediately summoning an era of National Front marches in the UK, the similarities with the far right now seeming much closer. After all, when they sing, “Holier than thou / Sunset gremlin / With a snidey wee smile”, they could just as easily be describing Nigel Farage as Oswald Mosley.

After such considered beginnings, ‘Drum’ is the first indication of the longer journey we’re headed on. Underpinned by tribal hammering, it urges us to get out and dance to the beat, but another voice in the maelstrom is conflicted, declaring with a hint of desperation, “I never claimed to be no role model”. ‘Tell Somebody’ and ‘Geronimo’ are the eye of the storm. The former consists of almost static orchestration, seemingly frozen in mid-air as mournful falsetto vocals soar above it, while the latter boasts a hip hop beat that feels like a coiled spring, ready to go off. ‘Shoot Me Down’ marks a move further into the unpredictable with its reverberating sub-bass and mantra-like vocal snippet warning us to “back off”. A vocal refrain slowly emerges, pleading “don’t shoot me down”, and then Native American voices open ‘Ululation’, a battle cry in a strange foreign tongue set to orchestral bombast.

‘Sink Or Swim’ follows next at a now frantic pace, handclaps set to a manic tempo as swirling electronics battle with the raw voices of the Fathers themselves. ‘Holy Moly’ continues the mood at breakneck speed with arguably the album’s strongest musical hook – “Holy moly, you’ve got to take your chance”. It starts fast and frenetic, then gets faster and faster, and more and more frantic, until the intensity seems literally unbearable.

‘Be Your Lady’ closes the album, starting with a single, vulnerable voice and plaintive piano, the tragic hero returning to an old flame after years, willing to throw off his toxic masculinity but simultaneously realising, “All I’ve got is crazy”. It veers from calm to chaotic and then back again, leaving us utterly, utterly spent.

Rest assured, ‘Heavy Heavy’ is quite a ride. It’s not the sound of Young Fathers maturing – it’s more than that. It’s evidence of their sophisticated ability to shake things up even more violently, and essentially, th

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