Album Review: Young Fathers – Heavy Heavy

[Ninja Tune; 2023]

Maybe – as the dominos fall in the Ukraine/Russia theatre – parallels to the Cold War make themselves too easy to embrace. But climate issues alone have pressurised the planet with a foreboding not felt since the nuclear age. An atmosphere already polluted with hydrocarbons, microplastics, and forever chemicals now breathes angst. Bad news streams through the cracks of our barricaded doors, demanding us to do something when nothing can be done.

Young FathersHeavy, Heavy carries this weight. It asks how to be a good person and what’s the use. It’s thankful for blessings and graces and guilty for having been born. It can’t find anything that won’t overflow its emotional banks and send it reeling. However, it knows that suffering can’t exist without joy and that joy can be its child.

Heavy, Heavy is also structured diabolically, like an hourglass with two-factor authentication. Instead of bookending or bifurcating it, Young Fathers inserted bottlenecks with “Tell Somebody” and “Ululation”: the weightless points where Heavy, Heavy doesn’t feel compelled by an unknown force. Its charge is sometimes positive and sometimes negative, but always unbeholden to the prevailing mood.

The album begins with “Rice”, the ancient grain that showers newlyweds as a symbol of sustenance and success. Its rolling, West African rhythm collects sounds like a garden rake and fizzes with a buzzsawing bass and a honkytonk harmonica. The song builds until it’s overloaded with ambition and hope, echoing a migrant’s tale: “I need to catch more fish / I need to eat more rice / Gotta bide my time / see the turning tide.” And then it ends with the line, “You can die like this.”

Released as a single last fall, “I Saw” capsizes “Rice” into suspicion, paranoia, and self-righteousness. Ambition morphs darkly into the desire for hollow victories, backsliding into drugs and violence at the same time its beat channels the newly sinister “Black Skinhead”. Post-millennium tension then pounds “Drum”, which returns to an upbeat rhythm, but vocalist Alloysious Massaquoi is out of breath and increasingly ashamed of his selfishness; his mind – nine minutes into the album – is spinning like a top.

“Straight from the void / So Imma get me some / So Imma get me tons” is his mantra at “Drum”’s outset, but a crisis lurks. He hears a voice singing in Yoruba something to the effect of “mix it up, speak up,” and so he does: “Imma get me some” becomes “So have one / Someone.” The epiphany then blossoms into our first break, “Tell Somebody”, which awakens on a church organ and a weary falsetto recalling TV On the Radio’s Kyp Malone: “Tell somebody / please / please / please.” 

“Tell Somebody” slams Heavy, Heavy against the rocks, purifying and nearly drowning it while providing a reset. “Geronimo” awakens to a new beat, determined and focused on the righteous path and “Shoot Me Down” appears to explicitly acknowledge Young Fathers’ duty as musicians to feed their audience.

The second break, “Ululation”, which is sung by Tapiwa “Taps” Mambo in Shona, is the album’s centerpiece. The title appears to be ironic, because instead of grief it heralds self-acceptance and rejection of the avarice that can underwrite ambition. Combined with “Shoot Me Down”, it symbolizes Young Fathers understanding and clasping their inheritance. As the next track repeats, “You either sink or swim or do nothing.”  

Heavy, Heavy never buckles. As a testament to the constant, psychological stresses of being an artist in the 2020s, it is bright, inventive, vulnerable, and rewarding. Pressure making diamonds and all that… maybe there’s something to it.