(Ninja Tune, out Fri 9 Mar 2018)
In a recent interview, Edinburgh trip-hop trio Young Fathers told how the release of new album Cocoa Sugar was a conscious effort to be “more normal” and wrestle their Mercury Music Prize winning sound towards the middle ground.
After two albums of dark intensity and an uncompromising approach to musical structure, the band have dispensed with the peripheral and the subterranean to surge upwards and, in the process, bring a bewildering array of genres and styles together to produce their most confident release to date.
It would take less time to list the musical flavours that haven’t been sampled on this album (spoiler alert – Bluegrass isn’t on the menu) yet Cocoa Sugar manages to artfully blend everything from Old Skool and Jazz to thirties Ragtime on its vertiginous ascent, leaving you open mouthed at the scale of its ambition.
Opening with enigmatic opener See How with its bow string scratches laid over warm gospel voices, lyrics like “can’t see the light when you’re stuck in the shadows” hint at the sonic metamorphosis about to take place. Through the playful flapper shuffle of Fee Fi it’s apparent that this is a group having huge fun, suddenly enjoying the experimental freedom afforded by its change of perspective.
Recent single In My View moves even closer to the mainstream, with its tribal drums and earworm for a chorus. It’s confident and harmonious, re-enforcing a new found linear blueprint. Just as things threaten to get too comfortable, the schizophrenic Turn teams up a dark distorted vocal and pulsating bass line which soon gives way to a euphoric “nah nah” melody – “learn your lessons, no such things as blessings”. It may as well be a strapline for the sensibilities of everything on here.
Last year’s single Lord is the kind of thing that could be mistaken for a cloying X Factor ballad if it wasn’t being continually pummelled by teeth jarring bass drills while the ping-pong heartbeat and haunting organ on Tremolo grind forward, taking cues from previous victories whilst creating something new and intriguing.
Wow gallops into life, all at once a disorientating bad trip complete with nightmarish howls before lifting itself into doo-wop amid its primitive jungle beats, until the warm, soothing Border Girl drags things back into the light.
Religion (or maybe redemption) is a theme that permeates through much of Cocoa Sugar. Holy Ghost – the only true dive into Hip-Hop on the record – tells a story of fire from within, getting all Grandmaster Flash in the process. Wire is a truncated chemical beats banger using Edinburgh vernacular at its heart (“Ooh ya fucka”) and the bitter, bouncing Toy laments a relationship breakup, gloriously utilising jump-rope rhymes and handclaps, tying you up in its incessant rhythm.
Set closer Picking You weaves an emotional Highland lament, the sampled skirl of bagpipes drifting over tattooed military drums seems like a nod towards home and a provides a suitable end to the collection.
These songs serve up a huge slice of musical strength and maturity and confirm Young Fathers have what it takes to shift through the gears into the big time.
Cocoa Sugar certainly deserves a second helping.