“You can trace it back to Africa. Back to the source.”
That’s Alloysious Massaquoi, one-third of the Edinburgh music group Young Fathers, explaining the universal thread the trio was tugging on while creating their new album Heavy Heavy. Massaquoi was born in Liberia and moved to Scotland as a young child. His bandmate Kayus Bankole spent time in his parents’ native Nigeria growing up and returned to Africa during some time off before the group got to work on their new LP. That heritage shines through more brightly than ever on Heavy Heavy, but as usual where Young Fathers are concerned, it’s more complicated than that.
In the same DIY feature, Massaquoi’s bandmate G. Hastings elaborates, “With this album there was a lot of analysis on an ancient kind of level. When you look at streams of music from around the world – Aboriginal Australians using didgeridoos, or drones in Celtic music, or this documentary I saw about this little community in Louisiana on the edge of mainline society – there’s this string that goes across all of them that’s since turned into pop music, and even stuff like Kraftwerk. It’s stripping things right down to the bare bones. There’s something that all humans need to soothe themselves.”
Young Fathers’ music has always been tapped into that wavelength to some extent. Even in their early days, when they were signed to Anticon and were sometimes clumsily described as avant-garde hip-hop, their sound was borderless, their yearning universal. They’ve continued to morph since then, combining styles and evading definition, honing an aesthetic as eclectic as it is distinct. Trip-hop, post-rock, psychedelia, old-school gospel and soul — all this and more was melted down into an unmistakable sonic language and shot through with unbound emotion. By the time they arrived at 2018 triumph Cocoa Sugar, people were reaching for descriptors like “garage rap,” “indietronica,” and “neo-soul” — terms that make me flinch but also shrug in recognition at the impossible task of boiling down this band’s whole deal.
A half-decade later, they’ve finally returned with new album Heavy Heavy. It’s the longest layoff between Young Fathers releases, and it has occasioned perhaps their most significant evolution yet. In simple terms, Heavy Heavy is the most African-sounding Young Fathers record to date. It’s also, while acknowledging adversity at every turn, their most joyous. Amidst the usual splatter of disparate sounds, impassioned group chants and rumbling hand percussion abound. The soulful vocal runs feel more electric than ever. “Hear the beat of the drums, and go numb/ Have fun,” goes one song’s refrain. Later, the wordless hoots and hollers of “Ululation” and the frenetic hip-shaking rhythm of “Sink Or Swim” suggest Young Fathers are following their own advice, even as their lyrics continue to grapple with the endless suffering of the human experience.
Heavy Heavy is so titled because it’s thick with sounds and ideas and feelings, not because it’s a dark or draining experience. At 10 tracks and 33 minutes, it’s by far the shortest Young Fathers LP, and most of those songs will have your body moving long before you even think to untangle the complex knot of emotions at their core. Working together in a basement studio with no outside collaborators, the band aimed to capture the dynamism of their live show, pulling ingredients off the shelf in the moment like inspired chefs improvising in the kitchen. The results are overwhelming, mostly in a good way. From beginning (the warm and glowing opener “Rice”) to end (the pairing of good-vibes tidal wave “Holy Moly” and throttling finale “Be Your Lady”) many of the songs hit like celestial party music, organic yet otherworldly as they careen toward euphoria. Even when taking the piss out of misguided Brexit cranks on the pulsing, pounding “I Saw,” the mood is giddy and hopeful. Even after lamenting “My back’s still broken from life’s effect” on “Holy Moly,” the endgame is resilient hope, “covered in violence with love around my neck.”
There are exceptions to the celebratory vibe, mostly clumped together in the center of the record. The falsetto-charged ballad “Tell Somebody” piles on ethereal bombast like TV On The Radio colliding with Sigur Rós in midair. The comparatively low-key “Geronimo” could be the sound of Tricky ascending to heaven, even as it commands you to “Get your elbows off the table/ See the hell on earth.” “Shoot Me Down” chops up bits of dialogue into a vivid collage backed by an array of electronic and hip-hop beats, culminating in hard-hitting boom-bap strewn with industrial squeals. But on either side of that, the norm on this tracklist is ecstatic grooves that sound like Animal Collective’s earthy, lysergic freakouts being reclaimed by people closer to the source material.
Young Fathers have spoken about trying to tap into a baseline humanity on this album, even going so far as to imagine faces reacting to their creations in real-time. The result is far from a lowest-common-denominator pop record; this band is far too idiosyncratic for that. But if Heavy Heavy exists at the intersection of three unique perspectives, beyond the realm of easy definition, it doesn’t cloister itself in some unapproachable avant-garde space. This is eminently welcoming, empathetic music that rewards engagement on levels both deep and superficial — whether you want to dissect the poetry of the lyrics sheet, marvel at the cinematic junkyard arrangements, or just follow the rhythm toward an all-night rager in some imagined town square. Despite all its density, don’t be surprised if Heavy Heavy leaves you feeling lighter.
Heavy Heavy is out 2/3 on Ninja Tune.