One of the highlights of the BBC’s excellent Mercury Music Awards show this week was a breathtaking rendition by the absurdly gifted Jessie Buckley of Footnotes on the Map, of For All Our Days That Tear the Heart, his Mercury-nominated album with guitarist Bernard Majordome. It was a vocal-style bravura piece that evoked undertones of Dusty Springfield, Loretta Lynn and Carole King. Besides being a good actor, Buckley can definitely carry a tune.
But the night as a whole belonged more to the spoken word than to the song. This year’s winner, Little Simz, and fellow nominee Kojey Radical both work in the long tradition of black music derived from American and Jamaican DJ culture, the dominant force in pop for what seems like forever.
The Mercurys cover a range of genres, and three others of the 10 nominees relied on the spoken word as much as the song. (One of the others, Fergus McCreadie, is a pianist.)
Among the performances of the evening, Wet Leg’s Chaise Longue, from their eponymous debut album, is a fun exercise in Gen-Z drollery. Yard Act’s 100% Endurance, from their album The Overload, is a surprisingly positive metaphysical cod anthem, and Self Esteem’s I Do This All the Time, from their album Prioritize Pleasure, is a crowd-pleasing affirmation. of the festival of female empowerment in the face of misogyny. All are good tunes, but their lyrics are widely spoken.
It’s been going on for a while. Elsewhere in today’s Irish Times you can read about the latest album from Dry Cleaning, whose singer Florence Shaw is another spoken word performer.
Much has been written about the growing popularity in Britain and Ireland of “spoken singing”, or sprechgesang. (The word comes from early 20th-century composers, though one wonders what Schoenberg or Humperdinck would have thought of Wet Leg’s invitation to “butter my muffin”). Irishmen Fontaines DC, For These I Love and Sinead O’Brien are also leading practitioners.
Some trace the origins of this current wave almost a decade back to the hard-hitting portrayals of British austerity by Sleaford Mods and Kae Tempest during the David Cameron years. But you could also point a few generations further back to post-punk innovators such as The Fall or Gang of Four, or even further back to Lou Reed’s generation. Given these precursors, it is not surprising that the form was associated more with sardonic misanthropes than with uplifting hymns or light-hearted chants. But that now seems to be changing.
Fountains DC are perhaps the first internationally successful Dublin band with obvious Dublin accents since, well, The Dubliners
“There’s one thing I love happening in the UK right now,” American super-producer and songwriter Jack Antonoff told Relix magazine in 2021, “which has these kinds of spoken-word verses Lou Reed with super melodic choruses that all these bands do… It comes hard and it’s not something you expected X a number of years ago.
Others are less impressed. A review of The Overload in online magazine The Quietus dismissively refers to “landfill sprechgesang”, recalling the worst years of mediocre indie rock in the 2000s and pointing out that “bands that use sprechgesang now fill the airwaves of the BBC 6 Music and the biggest stages. rock festival line-ups.
Why has the word become so widespread? Part of the answer, as always with pop music, is a simple stepping hop. “We definitely trojaned it,” Yard Act told Louder Than Bombs. “To attract a little attention [off] the back of some of these groups, but knowing that we were going to subvert it and get away from it as soon as possible. Which sounds pretty cynical.
Honesty is admirable. But the form itself seems well adapted (so to speak) to our times. Among its apparent virtues: stripped down authenticity and immediacy, rejection of artifice, emphasis on raw personal experience, greater scope for wit and verbal dexterity. And it’s welcome that most practitioners make a virtue of their genuine accent: Fontaines DC are perhaps the first internationally successful Dublin band with obvious Dublin accents since, well, The Dubliners.
There’s an inevitable similarity in some of these things, especially if they tie too closely to the old American post-punk/hardcore UK model.
That said, there’s an inevitable similarity in some of this stuff, especially if it ties too closely to the old American post-punk/hardcore British model. Listening to too much can feel like being trapped on the top deck of a night bus with a man who won’t let you go until you hear his tragic life story in his entirety. But wet legs and self-esteem brings something different and more contemporary: a spin on generational experiences and gender politics in the 2020s that feels fresher, more current and, above all, closer to the mainstream. dominating pop.
It’s surely only a matter of time before Jessie Buckley makes her sprechgesang debut. Although that still seems like a waste of a wonderful voice.