Critically renowned for their ground-breaking and emotionally raw spoken word poetry, Kae Tempest is now blessing us with their fourth album, This Line Is a Curve. This is their first album release since they came out as nonbinary in 2020, and they’ve promised a personal openness and honesty that goes with the territory in this new work. So what did our writers make of it? Time to find out…
I simply love Kae Tempest. Playwright, poet, and genius lyricist, I have committed my love for them permanently in the form of an actual tattoo on my body. Clearly, I was always going to be eagerly awaiting their fourth studio album, This Line Is A Curve. With four tracks released ahead of the album on 8th April, Tempest left us suitably teased and waiting in anticipation for what promises to be their most introspective and personal album to date.
I’ve had their 2019 spoken word album The Book of Traps and Lessons solidly on repeat for approximately the last year. A passionate, though relatively calm album, the tracks flow absolutely seamlessly into each other, making it satisfyingly addictive listening. Ahead of seeing them live at the Cambridge Corn Exchange at the end of April, I felt obliged to widen my listening habits and so 2016’s Mercury Prize nominated Let Them Eat Chaos has become my most recent obsession. A more deliberately chaotic album in some ways, Tempest’s passion for politics, identity, and the general state of the world can be poignantly felt across both albums and their differing, though equally carefully curated moods.
This Line Is A Curve sits somewhere in between these two in tone. Angry, contemplative, and honest, this album doesn’t flow as seamlessly as The Book of Traps and Lessons, but is clearly a sensitively constructed whole. More Pressure was the first single to be released and I’ve pretty much had it on repeat since then. With an upbeat backing track accompanying repetitive but characteristically clever lyrics, there is something joyously summer-y about this track. In the week before the album dropped, I Saw Light was released as a single – a very different kind of track to More Pressure. Featuring Fontaine D.C’s frontman, Grian Chatten, this is a more grounded track with a richness to its lyrics that mean I definitely haven’t caught all the beautiful lines in it on the handful of listens I’ve devoted to it. The album culminates in the significantly calmer Grace, reminiscent of the last track on The Book of Traps and Lessons. It seems to be Tempest’s way to end their albums on perhaps the most emotionally poignant track of them all.This Line Is A Curve is a triumph. It was highly unlikely that I was ever going to conclude otherwise. In the wake of Tempest’s recent public announcement that they are non-binary, there is an extra layer of intimacy to this album that isn’t quite so clear in their others. Let Them Eat Chaos in particular tells a narrative of other people’s lives; in some ways a direct contrast to the subject matter of This Line Is A Curve.
Ultimately, there is something so infinitely likeable about Kae Tempest and their struggle to be a successful creative person in a world that is not always kind to such people, which will always lead me back to their eclectically creative door.
I have always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with spoken word poetry. I love how raw and powerful it can be depending on how the performer utilised their language and their unique voice in any given topic. But also, I hate that the very nature of the thing makes it unpredictable and occasionally just plain disjointed to listen to.
With Kae Tempest I’m of two minds about how I feel. Listening to the whole album has left me feeling rather at a loss. Some records, such as ‘Salt Coast’, contain such satisfying wordplay. A tapestry of imagery around nature while also tackling the idea of toxic patriotism. Another example would be ‘Grace’, the final track on the album, that sees us out with a kind of soft acceptance. This track speaks of a loss of hope, but a development of trust. Of beautiful life and how it is a blaze of being crushed and loved in equal measure.
In some tracks, Kae lives up to expectation as a poet, exceeds it even, with their use of language. They come from a place of genuine expression, exploring themes of identity and resilience in the face of adversity. I wish I could say this about all of their tracks. Some were not as enjoyable for me.
‘Smoking’ feels out of place among the rest of the album. It feels as if it is attempting to capture the charm of someone recording and releasing music in their bedroom; Kae’s voice slightly distorted as if they were captured on the voice notes feature of WhatsApp rather than in a sound booth. Instead of the desired effect, the track comes across as unfinished. I find it to be missing something in its delivery and construction: perhaps the same conviction from the performer I admired in other songs.
I think another thing that pulls me away from the core intention of the album is the lack of narrative. Typically when constructing an album, artists will consider the order and content of their works so as best to convey a story, a journey that the listener can go on with them. I can’t seem to firmly grasp that with The Line Is A Curve. There is a good beginning, and the end, as portrayed by ‘Grace’, is perfectly melancholy but curious, a cliff-hanger ending of ‘will it be okay or won’t it?’. But the middle section feels unsteady and hectic.
Overall the album is good. It didn’t knock my socks off, which I was actually hoping it would, considering I came to this a brand new listener of Kae’s. There are a few tracks that have found their way into my liked lists, and ‘Salt’ into a playlist of ‘songs to listen to while me and Bae overthrow the government’, but in total I am walking away underwhelmed. There is a lot of substance to what Kae has to say, and even the tracks that lost me contain some poignant lyrics, but the inconsistency in tone and intention frustrates me a little too much to consider reattempting a full album-listen through.