The title of Kate Tempest’s new album and book, Let Them Eat Chaos, alludes to the infamous kiss-off that legend has French queen Marie Antoinette saying when she learned the peasants in her kingdom had no bread. Tempest’s furious poetry evokes a similarly simmering world divided between haves and have-nots, but she’s not specifically targeting political elites: she’s calling to anyone who lacks empathy, anyone who believes that taking time to understand someone else’s perspective is somehow losing out in a zero-sum game.
Tempest is still making a name for herself on the American music scene, but she’s a literary wunderkind and a musical sensation in her native Britain. Now 31, she first rose to prominence as a poet, playwright, and spoken-word performer; when she won the prestigious Ted Hughes Prize for poetry in 2013, she was just in her 20s, the first person under 40 to ever receive the honor.
The following year, she released her debut album: Everybody Down, produced by Dan Carey (Sia, Django Django, Bat for Lashes). A series of rapped/spoken story-songs exploring the lives of two desperate characters in South London, Everybody Down was rapturously reviewed and was nominated for a Mercury Prize. Tempest later turned the album’s story into a novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses, published in 2016.
Now, there is Let Them Eat Chaos: Tempest’s second album, released late last year and also published as a book of prose-poetry duplicating the album’s lyrics. Again working with Carey, Tempest trades the itchy, suspenseful plotting of Everybody Down for a series of portraits of seven Londoners who live on the same block, and who by coincidence all happen to be awake one day at 4:18 a.m.
Returning to the 7th Street Entry last night (she previously played the Entry when touring behind Everybody Down), Tempest performed all of Let Them Eat Chaos: front to back, with no encore. Though the songs stand up in isolation (you’ve heard some of them played on The Current), it makes sense to perform the album in its entirety in a live setting. Not only do the songs fit together in sequence, Tempest provides narration from an omniscient perspective that connects the often dire details of her characters’ lives to their broader ecosystems — both natural and cultural.
Born Kate Calvert, Tempest assumed a stage name inspired by her style of performance. After a moody instrumental opening set by Andrew Broder (Fog), the headliner took the stage at 9 p.m. in a rugged, military-style olive coat and bright green stocking feet. Tempest said she remembered when Let Them Eat Chaos was just a germ of an idea, and mentioned the stars covering First Avenue’s exterior wall, thinking of all the ideas brought to fruition by all the artists who preceded her on the stages of the legendary Minneapolis venue. She encouraged us to turn our own ideas into reality, and then launched into Let Them Eat Chaos.
Live, the pulsing electronic soundscapes of Tempest’s album are realized by three musicians, working closely with a colleague handling a mixing board just offstage. Two of the musicians handle keyboards (two each, for a total of four), and a percussionist plays a drum pad. Tempest herself roams the front of the stage, crouching and lunging and pointing and stretching as she describes the lonely lives of her seven subjects.
There’s Gemma, a self-destructive young woman: “If you’re good to me I will let you go […] If you’re bad to me I will like you more.” There’s Esther, a worn-out caregiver whose insomnia is induced by worry about a heartless world (“Europe is Lost”). There’s Alisha, traumatized by having seen her boyfriend stabbed (“We Die”).
There’s Pete, a heedless party animal who drains every paycheck on revelry (“Whoops,” the album’s closest thing to a comic track, Tempest grinning as she swung into it at the Entry). There’s Bradley, a public relations professional who’s doing well but questions whether his life has meaning (“Pictures on a Screen”). There’s Zoe, packing her things because she’s being priced out by gentrification (“The squats we used to party in/ Are flats we can’t afford”). Finally, there’s Pius, who distracts herself from heartbreak with casual sex (“she doesn’t love, she just devours”).
Like all great writers, Tempest nails the details — and she connects the lives of the people she knows, fictional characters inspired by the people she grew up around, to broader themes. At the end of Let Them Eat Chaos, a literal storm brings all seven characters out of their houses, where they see each other and share a moment of connection. Finally, in “Tunnel Vision,” Tempest brings it all together, reminding us of just how willful ignorance hurts us all.
You see the tragedy and pain of a person that you’ve never met
Is present in your nightmares, in your pull towards despair
And the sickness of the culture, and the sickness in our hearts
Is a sickness that’s inflicted by this distance that we share
It’s a powerful piece of poetry, and Tempest’s achievement as a musician is in, working with her collaborators, creating a soundscape that amplifies and extends her themes in a manner that’s nearly symphonic. Let Them Eat Chaos will make you think of U.K. grime and hip-hop (Mike Skinner’s work as the Streets is the analog that will perhaps jump most immediately to mind), and of artists like Gil Scott-Heron and Dessa, but song cycles from Schubert and Strauss (the original “concept albums,” perhaps) are also part of the tradition Tempest draws on.
As you’d expect from someone who can hold a room rapt with nothing but her own voice and body, Tempest is positively electric as a live performer with her band. She communicates the urgency of her narrative so powerfully that, standing in the front row, I looked down to see my hands clasped together in an odd configuration: I’d been so absorbed in the performance, I seemed to have forgotten I had limbs to arrange. The show was an unforgettable experience, and unsettling — as it was meant to be.
Photographer Emma Roden is a student at Normandale Community College.