I find it staggering that it’s a whole 9 years since we covered Young Fathers’ debut Dead on the pre-podcast Blog days. In fact, it feels like a different lifetime, like so much before 2020 does. And yet almost a decade on, once I saw Heavy Heavy was dropping into my podcast slot, it didn’t seem like any other album would get a look in. But as soon as I picked it, I had to ask myself: just how much Young Fathers have you really listened to in the last few years? What do you know about them? Because it’s funny how much you like an artist or act and realise that outside those headphones you couldn’t even name them all.
The answer wasn’t quite as embarrassing as I’d quite feared, but it was much more odd tracks over supporting whole albums, which suddenly felt like I’d missed one of the most fascinating bands around completely. This thought would solidify over the next few weeks until it felt like a millstone. Despite this, one of the big reasons I’d chosen Heavy Heavy was just how much I’d loved the initial singles that appeared over the past 9 months. Geronimo arrived in July last year and as well as listening to it regularly, Spotify seemed to want to push it in my direction, something that puzzled me, (and there’s a wider discussion on the algorithm to be had later on). It made my end of year long list in 2022, with its quiet whispers sitting atop a brass-driven motif, before the discordant harmonies drew me in as it broke into song. A song, on its own, unwrapping the mystery of Young Fathers’ own kaleidoscopic sound and unique character in one, three-and-a-half minute epic.
Three more singles followed, in that strange streaming-era way that means you know a big chunk of most albums before they land, and each was different in its own brilliant way, from the bleak beauty of I Saw, evoking discarded immigrants (perhaps?) or – according to the band (from a recent Guardian interview) about how we all watched Brexit unfold and did, well, nothing. One song, many meanings. Follow-ups came from across the music spectrum: Tell Somebody’s swelling, orchestral lament and Rice’s loose, percussive chorus of voices. Of course, in isolation they felt like four great singles, but somewhat disconnected. But then, that’s how Young Fathers operate. Nothing is (as in Rice, the album’s opener) ‘in an orderly fashion’. They thrive on genre-bending records, jumping between styles even within a single chorus. But then, when it’s part of a whole, it all seems to fall into place.
Once thing I knew we’d get in comparison to some of the longer recent albums was brevity, focus and power. Heavy Heavy came in at 32 minutes, across ten songs. Heaven. Joey would have to get back through at least track 2 before his 39 minute walk ended! While not every album has to be 3 minute songs, this feels like a definite follow-on from their last album, 2018’s Cocoa Sugar, which saw the band make their most structured record to date, with its leaning on pop songs’ formula even as they retained their own badge. But where Cocoa Sugar was as restrained as Young Fathers get (and that word is doing a lot of heavy lifting here), Heavy Heavy has, for me, much higher highs and lower lows, musically and thematically.
Like all the best records it flies by: I’ve put it on twice many times already. But unlike some records which slip by almost unnoticed, this never fails to take the attention. In a music landscape of often rigidity – though lord knows there’s more than enough amazing music around – Young Fathers’ glorious m.o. of disregarding expectation and just letting rip – both softly and abrasively – is what marks them apart and frankly should have them even more lauded than their Mercury Prize-winning reputation deserves. I’ve listened to this album a lot, and while I have loved its sheer inventiveness, its vigour, its ability to slip between so many different colours on the spectrum, for a long while I struggled to work out how it made me feel.
Because we are all about the feels. And as I marvelled at Drum’s energy and uplifting falsetto, or Shoot Me Down’s chopped up samples dissolving into a weighty chant, or Ululation’s tribal wailing, it took me ages to land on what it meant. But now I’m there. It’s just JOY. The energy, the life that comes from this record, the way it lifts me up, you stand in its brilliant glare, absorbed, and then 30 minutes later, it’s gone. And I will sit there with a grin on my face, not sure what I’ve just listened to, what it may mean, but that I have experienced something pure. And that’s hard to pin down, and across their albums while the meaning may be elusive, even as Be Your Lady’s piano explodes into feedback, noise and a slew of vocals, I know that I am alive.
So – if we are to try while appraising this brilliant album – what the hell are Young Fathers? Song to song, it may be possible to divine something approaching genre. But nothing is certain from track to track, but it ends up feeling like it was all meant to be together. I can’t think of anyone else that really does this, though I will return to my favourite reference point: Genesis Owusu. I know we did this in reverse too, but I am now wondering how much Young Fathers he listened to? Because while Owusu has more funk and soul, courtesy of his tight musical collective, there is so much to see parallel here. But if its frustrating (not to me) for some to try and work out what this band is, it seems the music press, and platforms don’t seem to know either. People think they’re hip-hop (nope), noise (sometimes), rock (honestly). To me they are exploring the outer edges of pop music. It may not sound like a lot of pop you know, but it’s 3 minute songs, with song structure, and a group that really wants to push things to the limit, but they have a world and it’s very much their own. Even if no one can categorise it, who cares? Radio stations can’t even work out if they play them.
There is also a tangential link to Episode 30’s Rozi Plain album, Prize. While it may seem incongruous, the lyrical metaphor and opacity of Heavy Heavy leaves you searching for your own answers, as some of the best music only manages. Is Rice about slavery? Racism? Is Tell Somebody about mental health? Joy? Pain? It isn’t clear, but perhaps like last month’s album, it doesn’t really matter. Young Fathers are often elusive about their meanings, but if it works, it works? It’s refreshing not just to need to work to unpick lyrics, but to not still be sure 25 listens in.
I have also spent some time again with Dead, and their other two albums, 2015’s White Men Are Black Men Too, and the aforementioned Cocoa Sugar, and they have been every bit as fantastic as the first and newest were. Dead was – running to it last weekend – way more familiar than I’d have thought it would be. Music really does still have that ability to transport you to a time and place. For Dead, I’m not 100% sure what I was doing in 2014 when the album came out in February – probably being seasonably dismal – but an album that I remember felt way out of my comfort zone at the time, but nonetheless memorable, felt at turns familiar and also fresh. Get Up in particular, leapt out, its off-key drone still sounding really new, angry, edgy and vital. It’s a rare feat managing that after so long, but perhaps the genre-hopping/avoiding music they make means this is all the more possible. Through the albums, as a whole lineage – and I listened to all 4 in a row one Sunday – they feel so cohesive together, all this big universe that they have made their own. In a post-genre world, how does a band like Young Fathers fit in?
Finally, there’s the videos, shot almost all in non-widescreen, another incongruous but seemingly bold statement in a pushback against the general music ‘machine’. They are striking, from older ones such as Low’s washed-out colours, or the visual attack of Shame to the new album’s visceral I Saw or Tell Somebody, to the dry humour of Toy’s casting of children as leaders, despots and maniacs. As their music does, the visual medium shows us just how vibrant and full of ideas they are, making things they want, the way they want. And we can all celebrate that.
Sit back, give in to the music, and feel the joy.
3 thoughts on “March: Heavy Heavy – Young Fathers”
Great write up as always Guy.
Being mindful that I own all of the previous albums in physical form, Young Fathers are a group that I really want to like / love, but have never fully got my head around and they have fallen heavily into the ‘great to add to a playlist camp’.
As Guy has highlighted, the pre-album singles were strong, though I was curious how the band planned to paste everything together as an album with new editions?
I’m very much gathering my thoughts on this album, though after watching a couple video of Young Fathers performing live recently I’m starting to think that this is an album that needs to be listened to live. I heard someone refer to the sound of the album as cathedral which I thought was very apt. The layered vocals and builds throughout many of the songs would lend themselves very well to a live set, and with their building catalog of songs I wonder if a large driver to this collections of songs was to compliment their live show?
This album has a great flow to it, and has Guy’s has highlighted, it doesn’t pass you by. From the bass line in Rice, track by track it flows whilst letting you dip in and out as you like. They blatantly love a good hook, which creates a consistency throughout the diversity of the songs. A great example of this is Holy Moly which (in my opinion) starts off a bit disjointed and rough, but pulls you in with a great hook ahead of a piano hand-clapping offering of wonderfulness.
My favorites seem to change depending on my mood, though Geronimo consistently pulls me in and I get lost in its’ brilliance. The opening line of ‘Sometimes bad guys don’t need to lie’ continues to puzzle me in its’ vague brilliance.
I find that this album is frustrating, but in a positive way. I think I like it but I’m not sure why. If I was asked to explain it I couldn’t quickly (though cathedral is feeling like the best option). It’s different, it’s interesting, and I feel I’m only starting to let it fully sink in.
Thanks for the great write up, Guy, and a really fascinating response, Nolan.
It’s funny you say that you feel like you need to hear it live, Nolan. As you know, Guy and I went to see YF at the o2 in Leeds this week, and it was such an astonishing experience, I feel like my write-up is now going to be COMPLETELY different to if I hadn’t seen the gig. In short: you’re absolutely right, seeing them live makes the whole of their sound make sense in a way that I don’t know if it does on record at times.
As I was watching them live, I found myself returning to that discussion that everyone gets hung up on about YF – what genre is this? What music even can we call this? But then after a while, what I realised is that there is something both so organic AND so tight about the way they operate as a group that it can be hard to pick them apart – that sound is quite dense, it’s packed with sounds, with rhythms, with different vocals – so at times, I think they’re quite an overwhelming experience. But seeing them live, you realise how carefully each vocalist (it’s interesting that there is clearly no one lead singer) contributes to each song. Graham “G” Hastings brings that low growl and the dark mutterings, Alloysious Massaquoi that soaring vocal melody and sharp rapping style, and Kayus Bankole has this incredible range that goes from a whisper to mad screaming bark. The energy that he gives each gig will send him to an early grave if he’s not careful, he’s insane.
Interestingly, on that thorny issue of genre. I think we all balk at seeing them lumped in as hip hop when they’re so obviously not, and you can’t help but wonder if the music press are looking at a largely black group and being lazy. But I realised WHY they aren’t hip hop when we were watching them – it’s not the vocals, which actually feature loads of what you could call rapping, and LOADS of the kind of call and response that rap features – it’s because the rhythms are so UN-rap. They’re not build on James Brown or disco samples. They’re built on a rock beat, a thumping crazy, sometimes Afro-rock beat, but definitely a rock beat. I joked to Guy that some of the tracks sounded almost glam rock (by which I mean Ziggy Stardust/T-Rex, not Mud or Showaddywaddy!), and there that sense of the thumping ON beat of a speeded up rock track that sounds glam.
I revisited all their earlier albums in preparation for the gig, and revisiting both Dead and White Men are Black Men Too, it did hit me that they’ve deliberately made them quite a tough listen. They have a natural ear for melody, and actually build a lot of their songs around quite pretty major chord arpeggio loops, but the production is then so in your face and distorted (very deliberately, obviously) that it can make them feel quite abrasive.
What I love about the new album is that there is none of that. Two of the most beautiful songs on the album, the soaring Geronimo (and wow, that was incredible live) and the stunning Tell Somebody, are allowed to breathe and be, well, beautiful in a way that I don’t think they’d have allowed on their earlier work.
I know we’re big fans of great sequences on records, and I would make a case that the first 5 songs on here are the strongest on any record we’ve heard in a long time. Rice is a bouncing joy of an opener, I Saw is a smash and grab with amazing punk energy, Drum is a hypnotic, jerky delight. And then onto Tell Somebody, a real palette cleanser after so much energy, and then Geronimo. The first gauntlet of 2023 has been laid down – beat that, anyone else.
I think this album is a career highlight from an already great band. And I think it’s the first album of 2023 that I can tell you, without a shadow of a doubt, will be in my top 10 come the end of the year. Can’t wait to discuss the album and that gig!
Sorry for the late posting of this … new job, busy life blah blah. I’m on a train to London, I left the house in my car and put Heavy Heavy on when I started my journey. I think I am half way through album on my third rotation. That’s not a bad response in and of itself. As per usual, I will throw all of my thoughts down using the medium of semi-considered bullet pointed thoughts …
– I like this album, I am close to loving it … but I haven’t yet fully emotionally connected to it. I did feel like this with Rozi … and I actually connected with that album through speaking about it out loud with you guys. So watch this space.
– Guy reference a ‘mysteriousness’ to the album, particularly with reference to it’s lyrics. I agree with this and think this maybe the reason for my lack of total emotional connection.
– I like the lyrics. I think I understand them. But I understand them differently every time that I concentrate upon them.
– I posted a pic the other day of my son, sat in front of the TV reading every lyric of every song as it was presented to him by the TV’s Spotify app. He was absolutely transfixed. It was weird. He got it. He tried to sing along. He enjoyed it.
– Let’s quickly hear it for 10 track, 32 minute albums!
– Is this the best YF album as David suggested? I am not sure. I think there are some strong arguments to defend this claim. But I also some of the pop-clarity from dead. Yes, I know they made you fight for the hooks on that album, but for me, that was an added gift. I think the scope and ambition of this album is incredible. But I am not sure if that is enough for me to rate it above ‘Dead’ … but this is not a bad problem for a band is it? Which of album’s is the most incredible?
– Let’s do genre – David, you’re 100% right, the music industry is lazy when it comes to race and genre. It wants things to be easy to categorize.
– So is this Hip Hop? Nope. Is it rock? Nope. What is it? Who knows?
– I actually think the genre-title that fits most accurately is ‘world-music’ I know that means something else in ‘standard music speak’ but in its truest sense, this is WORLDY music and I will die on a very small hill defending that description.
– David, don’t joke, there are HUGE glam rock nods on this album. 100%. However, in YF’s hands, that glam rock beat and and afro-beat start to merge and become the same thing. That is not a sentence that I ever imagined using! Think of how Kanye used the glam rock rhythm on Black Skinhead, it’s the same thing
– In terms of stand out tracks, yes, the opening 5 tracks are incredible and I get the reason for pointing them out … but for me, I prefer the 2nd half of the album
– The 2nd half is more experimental, it’s more intriguing
– Uluation is my favourite track – then energy is incredible. I hope they played that one at the gig. I’d love to know how that sounded
– Sink or Swim, Holy Moly, Be Your Lady … hang on David, I see your ‘this is the best 5 track sequence to open an album’ comment and raise you ‘this is the best 5 track sequence to end an alum’ 🙂
– As I am writing this, I am realising that I love this more than I thought I did.
I am looking forward to discussing this one with you three.