Young Fathers – Heavy Heavy

Despite putting out their first material fifteen years ago, a five-year break since their last project, and an experimentalist attitude that sees them jumping back and forth between genres and sounds, the profile of Scottish trio Young Fathers has only continued to rise. Releasing on celebrated English label Ninja Tune, their fourth project Heavy Heavy is only ten tracks in length, but it often doesn’t feel like it – in a good way. Tapping into new ventures of African influences, teaming up with some artists native to the continent, and letting things unfold like a communal jam session, as Pitchfork accurately put it: “it invites the listener to join in, to stand up and sing.” While that kind of feeling does lend the project a kind of unforgettable and unique quality, the reliance on feeling itself does cause the trio to let structure fall by the wayside a couple times. Still, it’s great to see an album this unique get so much attention.

The trio have mentioned that they wanted the opening track, “Rice,” to capture the feeling of starting a journey in the fresh morning air. It’s certainly one of the tracks here that simply emanates positivity in the most effective way, whether it’s the singer’s cheerful tone of voice or the power of the drumbeats in the back continuing to build as the track goes along, making me picture a large group gleefully smacking them with their palms. Some of the backing vocals give off that gospel-adjacent quality of just giving yourself over to something bigger, with echoing extended falsetto notes adding to the atmosphere. But halfway through the track, as it continues to build, the distortion ends up getting turned up to a truly overwhelming degree. It’s something that happens a couple more times – it seems like they wanted to capture the sense of being absolutely swept up in the movement, but it’s not something that’s enjoyable to listen to after a certain point. “I Saw” finds the vocalist descending onto the track like a wild preacher, distorting every time he raises his voice. Apparently inspired by Brexit, the track seems to be touching on the tightrope between feeling the need to ignore world events for the benefit of your own mindstate, and exacerbating the problem by turning a blind eye, as we get a contrast between the wilder voice calling us to action and a calmer one in the chorus continuing to “walk the line.” The driving, swung rhythm in the back echoes the latter sentiment, but again, we somehow get to a repetitive, chipmunked voice telling us to brush our teeth by the end.

Out of all of the directives here to just let loose and go along with it, the track “Drum” might be the most convincing. Immediately kicking things off with an absolutely frantic tempo and one of the catchier melodies here telling us to “hear the beat of the drums and go numb,” vocalist Aloysius Massaquoi starts adopting a quick flow to match that gives off a bit of hip-hop energy, while Kayus Bankole adds a verse in his native Yoruba language. As the echoing, massive drum hits start building up once again, it’s hard not to take their advice. “Tell Somebody” switches gears with some creeping synths and echoing chants muted in the background. The vocal delivery is quite reminiscent of Awaken, My Love-era Childihs Gambino, a soulful falsetto delivering a calming mantra juxtaposed by cryptic and slightly ominous lyrics. The slow build appears once again, the percussion exploding halfway through the track. This one is built for a movie climax, and it’s certainly an intriguing diversion.

The track “Geronimo” kicks off with whispery, stuttered raps in line with a clicking, clacking beat. The drawn-out, shimmering synths return, this time as more of a complement to the percussion rhythms in the forefront of the mix, but it still gives off the energy of a more subdued space to perform some kind of chanted ritual as the vocalist alternates between “get on” and “get off.” Where the other tracks felt unique and essential, this one seems like it’s trying to capture a similar energy as its predecessors without as many standout moments. The thing that’s consistently interesting about the band, however, is the fact that each vocal line is wholly unexpected. Despite the fact that there are only two vocalists, one with a smoother voice, one with a raspier one, they’re so incredibly malleable that it feels like we’re hearing from a collective with a different soloist each time. This continues onto “Shoot Me Down,” a track bolstered by its intercut, chopped-up vocal samples and another repetitive chant to get lost in. That being said, however, we actually do get a guest vocalist on “Ululation” – it’s Bankole’s close friend, invited to the studio while having a hard time in her relationship and encouraged to voice her frustrations on the mic through a series of spoken-word shouts. The track is appropriately named, as we do get those tribal vocalizations in the background and an engaging African-inspired rhythm in front.

Like “Drum” before it, “Sink or Swim” is another highly upbeat, almost overwhelming sensory overload of a track. The repetitive mantra on this one is “you either sink or swim or do nothing,” so in this case, we’re not so much being inspired to dance or join the party, but just to be alright with taking things as they come. When they throw themselves into the message this much, once again, I’m inclined to listen to them. More than any other track here, “Holy Moly” evokes the sense of joy that they nod to in the lyrics just by the goofy way they deliver the lyrics here. It’s almost reminiscent of a kids’ show trying to be engaging – there’s something about the way they sing “holy moleeeee” that sticks in your brain, even before a gang vocals moment at the end sends it to overdrive. Closing track “Be Your Lady,” however, almost sounds like they’re playing all of the other tracks at the same time. It starts calm, but builds up into a truly disorienting cacophony.

It feels a little strange critically evaluating Heavy Heavy at all, as on the surface it mostly just feels like a group of three guys who went into the studio and let whatever feelings they had that day manifest itself in a kind of freeform jam session. Still, despite some structural shortcomings, it’s undeniable that I wanted to join in.

Favourite Tracks: Drum, Tell Somebody, I Saw, Holy Moly, Rice

Least Favourite Track: Geronimo

Score: 7/10


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