Eric Corson would rather take the 405.
Young Fathers have been on the periphery of commercial success for quite a while. The Edinburgh trio won the prestigious Mercury price in 2014, and Danny Boyle liked their music so much he put six of their songs in T2: Trainspotting. They have collaborated with Massive Attack and have toured the world over. But their experimental and at times forbidding music has kept the group from becoming mainstream players. Their 2014 debut album Dead was met with almost universal critical success but the record’s brash, confrontational blend of genres didn’t win them vast crowds. Their follow-up, White Men Are Black Men Too, set off controversy with its name alone but it couldn’t quite break through either.
With their latest, Cocoa Sugar, Graham Hastings, Kayus Bankole, and Alloysious Massaquoi have tried to make a more accessible album, a record that embraces its audience as much as it challenges it. The result is stunning. The blend of neo-Gospel, hip hop, soul, punk and electronica are incorporated to perfection.
Syncopated bass and drums give way to lovely melodic bridges. A thundering, distorted synth-bass accompanies simple piano notes and an ethereal gospel choir. New Wave vibes meet screamed rap lyrics while simplistic dance beats crescendo into gospel anthems. There is no shortage of eclectic and inspired choices in the production, and yet nothing feels forced. It all makes a kind of mad sense.
As excellent as the music is, the real thrill comes once you unpack the lyrics. On album opener “See How,” Young Fathers describe heart break as a draining experience, an alienating weltschmerz: “Empty my body just to feel the love/ What’s the price of the light when you’re stuck in the shadows/.” On “In My View,” decadence and lust take on monstrous tones: “Dagger for the damned/ Fine wine and foie gras/ Now torture mixes me/ Trust me, even more delicious. ”On “Turn,” they tackle questions of identity and cultural appropriation: “Wanna turn my eyes blue/ I’m not like you/ I’m nothing like you/ Don’t turn my brown eyes blue.”
Or is it that Young Fathers describe alienating lovesickness on “Turn,” detail the dark underpinnings of lust on “See How,” and talk about complicated identity on “In My View?” That’s the thing about Cocoa Sugar: it’s powerful enough to grab hold immediately, but every time you listen to it, it freshly challenges assumptions about its meaning. Young Fathers use the stream of consciousness pastiches of their lyrics to find the uniqueness of our human experience as much as they pronounce seemingly universal truths. Each listener will have to interpret and make sense of it in their own way.
The lyrics on Cocoa Sugar mix biblical allegory with explicitly violent imagery and free associations on love and lust. They speaks to our current political climate while addressing collective modern-day malaise and neuroses. The record sounds modern, bold, experimental, and entirely of this age yet timeless. It’s never about one specific thing. It’s an album about struggling to be human, and thus it’s complicated and ultimately unknowable.