If there’s one thing Young Fathers have succeeded in doing since their lauded Tape One and Tape Two EPs in 2013, it’s unsettling. Indeed, the powers that be at the Mercury Prize don’t always get things right, but their selection in 2014 of Young Fathers’ debut, Dead, remains exemplary.
Like Dead’s album cover, the Edinburgh trio have always had a knack for getting under the skin of their listeners, with the combination of Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham ‘G’ Hastings intertwining into a heady combination that – like the best works – seems nigh impossible to categorise.
Art-pop, soul-rock, trip-hop. Slice it any way you wish; any attempt to identify a genre that neatly fits them are needless. What matters is the spirit and energy they’ve collectively concocted, at times, almost bearing the improvisational qualities of jazz, with each member taking their turn to step up to the mic.
And whilst 2018’s Cocoa Sugar saw perhaps a more melodic, yet darker direction — akin to how 1998’s Mezzanine stands out among the catalogue of Young Father’s frequently compared forefathers Massive Attack (who they’ve both collaborated and toured extensively with) — Heavy Heavy returns to those shaky, perturbed roots they emblazoned on their full-length debut.
It’s not as clear-cut as a direct replication, of course. Where DEAD’s best track was its most urgent, ‘GET UP’, Heavy Heavy’s is its most tranquil, with ‘Tell Somebody’ building into a choral crescendo of Sigur Rós-like immensity.
The subsequent track ‘Geronimo’ is another bright spot, the Massive Attack comparison its most pronounced — it could easily sit on the aforementioned Mezzanine or 1991’s Blue Lines. The line “Nobody really goes anywhere dressed up”, combined with mentioning of the track’s title sounding like “You’re animals” (compounded by previous mentions of “a lion” and “a lamb”), cuts through whatever worldly pretence you might have.
Meanwhile, embracing some of the trio’s African heritage is also a recurring aspect of the album. (Massaquoi was born in Liberia, moving to Scotland as a child; Bankole spent time in his parents’ native Nigeria before the group worked on Heavy Heavy). Album opener ‘Rice’ and the jubilant ‘Ululation’ are standout representatives of this.
The two seeming outliers on the record — ‘Drum’ and ‘Sink Or Swim’ — are of a similar ilk and probably the album’s weaker tracks. Both sound more like circus theme tunes, with their repetitive, somewhat monotonous thudding, although ‘Drum’ at least comes alive towards its end with its closing ensemble.
‘Holy Moly’ is the album’s most spiritual offering (‘Shoot Me Down’ a close second), sounding like Cocoa Sugar’s ‘Lord’ on speed. The beginning of album closer ‘Be Your Lady’ could well be a Bon Iver cover until its midpoint gear change, broken up once more by a soft-rock clime. It’s a parting message that sums up much of what Young Fathers are about. A bit of this, a bit of that. They can do it all whilst never escaping their consistent — and yes, unsettling — thread that runs throughout their entire output to date.
Ultimately, Young Fathers are a band whose best work — more than most — doesn’t sit neatly on one album but is spread across their discography. Fourth records can be a challenging period, one where it can be tempting to throw the kitchen sink at a departure record or attempt some sonic rebrand.
It’s not perfect, but Heavy Heavy certainly adds a healthy number of new tunes into the mix of some of Young Father’s best work.