By the time you actually come to read this it’s very possible that I’ll have become a dad for the first time, which is a weird thing. People tell you a lot of things about fatherhood — mostly variants on “It changes everything,” usually delivered with the sort of glazed look that suggests they have seen things — which can be faintly terrifying if you are generally broadly content with the way things presently are.
It doesn’t help that I am allergic to sentimentality which, especially in music, often seems like a cheap and manipulative trick — particularly when it works. I was on the London Underground the other day and just in front of me, a mother was holding up this baby boy, talking sweet gibberish at him, and he had this huge smile plastered across his face. Right as I’m watching this, the track from the new Panda Bear album came on my headphones, the one where Noah Lennox is plucking at a Hawaiian guitar and softly crooning the words “It’s all in the family…” and — well, what I’m saying is, that’s some sly shit right there.
But it’s got me to thinking how many of the albums that I’ve enjoyed in 2014 have been the work of fathers, albeit unconventional ones. Syro, the first album in 13 years from mercurial Cornish producer Aphex Twin was, on the surface, a pneumatic and detailed rave workout that very much gave the impression of a virtuoso at work. But then you learned that those oozy, manipulated voices you could hear submerged throughout were those of his wife Anastasia, and his two young sons aged 8 and 6, and it set the album in a quite different light: Suddenly Syro felt not so much like introverted bleep-bloop flexing, and more like a family affair. Sleaford Mods‘ Divide and Exit was equally deceptive. The work of two hard-faced 40-somethings from the English East Midlands, “Tied Up in Nottz” and “Liveable Shit” were rickety, ranted broadsides about moribund politics, human effluence and the unrelenting drudgery of work. Jason Williamson (ranter) and Andrew Fearn (beats) are the product of a lifelong weave through British musical subculture: punk rock, mod, hip-hop, rave, jungle. Their long path to recognition has bred bitterness, but also a core of wisdom and responsibility. “Tell my daughter it’s all gone wrong,” intones Williamson on non-album single “Tiswas.” Sleaford Mods’ disgust was grounded in sensitivity and a sense of injustice. They spread their muck around because they care.
Likewise, the second long-player from El-P and Killer Mike’s Run the Jewels was, in a quite straightforward sense, a record about DDTing people in mausoleums and teabagging piranha tanks. Two 39-year-olds whose artistry, in the past, had tended toward the grimly dystopian now found themselves in a partnership which is inspiring both to heroic feats of childishness.
But of course there was more to Run the Jewels 2. After the fully automatic sparring of “All Due Respect,” the track I found myself returning to most was “Crown,” a murky redemption tale on which Killer Mike recounted a tale in which he dealt coke to a woman who turns out to be pregnant; the child grows up mute, and the guilt he feels, and the longing for pardon, crackles in the air like electricity. Later I found myself watching a video of Run the Jewels onstage in St Louis, shortly after the Grand Jury came to a decision not to indict the Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of the black teenager Michael Brown. Mike is talking about being young and black in America — about his sons, and being afraid for their lives, and as he does so his voice is breaking, he’s holding back tears, and suddenly I feel a bit winded. 2014 felt a lot like that at times. It’s hard to think of a year in which inequality and injustice has felt quite so vivid. With that in mind, the promise of change feels very welcome.