Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
The first time I heard Dean Blunt’s ‘The Redeemer’ was in a blacked-out room in the ICA, with the sound turned up so loud I almost didn’t notice what a beautiful record it is. I’d read before going in to the one-off listening session that this was an “uncharacteristically lavish” record for the Hype Williams artist, but at an oppressively loud volume even the luscious strings, folk-y guitars and lapping water had the power to make me anxious. Hearing it at this volume forced me to go on what felt like a very bodily journey with it; I started out calm, blissful even as I listened to the easy inflections of Blunt’s understated-yet-so-expressive voice and the rich melodies and instrumentation. Before long, I was wincing at field recordings of smashing glass, recoiling from feedback and uncomfortably shuffling in silence, before gradually finding myself wanting to sing along to a unifying and uplifting resolution. What left me reeling the most was the sense I walked away with that this record told a concrete story, and the obsessive feeling I had that I had to immediately listen to it again to determine what that was. And then, of course, I wasn’t allowed to.
With press releases declaring ‘The Redeemer’ to be a concept record about the end of a relationship and the “curse of modern love”, not to mention the explicit religious presentation of the album, there was an unmistakable feeling in the build-up to the release date that it had a central narrative or truth holding it all together. Expectations were pinned firmly on the 1st May, as if somehow it would all finally make sense once we had the songs to listen to on repeat. The press kept insisting that this album was Blunt stepping out of the shadows, Blunt making – for once – a blunt statement. And yet, no one seemed to really articulate what that statement was, and on its arrival the album itself presented me with nothing but more questions.
Dean Blunt – Flaxen
In iTunes, the first surprise is ‘The Redeemer’‘s genre – “Dance & House”. This acts as the first clue that this is an album that, although presenting itself as one explicit thing, is actually no different from Blunt’s usual myriad of allusions and approaches, pulling you in several different directions as well as pulling your leg. Taking its cues from soul, folk, rock, classical, R&B and infinite subgenres in between, this record is thick with familiar sonic clues that are taken from pretty much everything but dance and house – the cheesy, soulful “yeah, yeah“s in DEMON, the funk guitar that closes MAKE IT OFFICIAL – and are used to simultaneously put you at ease and disorient you as they play against each other. While everything feels astoundingly harmonious to begin with, with the glorious string orchestra opening and the transcendent, harp-sampling brilliance of FLAXEN, things quickly begin to come apart. Field recordings make their presence brutally felt, automated and human voices battle for attention and the music itself is deconstructed to point where, on NEED 2 LET U GO (a song that has the most brilliant mainstream pop-esque title of the bunch despite being perhaps the least radio-friendly), atonal, drunken instruments swagger through wince-inducing feedback, and Dean’s voice ploughs tiredly on through.
“No one is satisfied with unanswered voicemails like those that litter the album’s tracklist; no one is comfortable listening to a room full of people counting down from 10 if they don’t know what everyone is counting down to.”
From this point, though, the tracks re-build themselves, culminating in the mellow lead single PAPI and the stunning IMPERIAL GOLD, a delicate folk song led mostly by vocalist Joanne Robertson (whose presence on the album is sublime). “Imperial Gold” is, among other things, a material that exists in the fictional Camp Half-Blood world, which was invented in Ancient Rome and is deadly to “monsters”. The Camp Half-Blood website tells you, in what might be the most wonderful disclaimer ever, “Welcome to Camp Half-Blood, a state-of-the-art training facility for young demigods. Due to security considerations, we are obliged to tell you that this entire site is fictional. There are no real monsters or Greek gods.” Whether intentional or not this reminds me of Blunt’s frequent complaint that people need to have everything explained to them; which in turn, makes me appreciate how beautiful IMPERIAL GOLD is with or without footnotes, and makes me regret all the googling and grasping for meaning I’ve been doing.
Because the main thing I’m gleaning from ‘The Redeemer’ is that it explicitly plays with the insecurity people feel when they think there’s something they don’t know. Everyone wants to elevate and redeem themselves through knowledge, and everyone wants to be understood; no one is satisfied with unanswered voicemails like those that litter the album’s tracklist; no one is comfortable listening to a room full of people counting down from 10 if they don’t know what everyone is counting down to. The more I listen, the more I realise that this theme pulsates through Blunt’s lyrics – in the very first two lines he uses the word “know” twice (“For me to get to know you better/ Something I should let you know”), and again in DEMON he juxtaposes “I suppose that everybody knows, yeah” with “I don’t suppose that I was meant to know”. Later, in MAKE IT OFFICIAL, he croons “let’s make it official/ So everybody kno-o-o-ws”, and in THE REDEEMER (another excellent, stand-out moment on the record, featuring a wistful turn from Inga Copeland) he laments “I don’t know-ow, if I’m coming or going”. The track title SEVEN SEALS OF AFFIRMATION refers to the seven seals seen on a scroll in John of Patmos’s Revelation of Jesus Christ, again drawing on the Biblical idea of the power of withheld or concealed knowledge.
“If there’s one thing I’ve consistently felt about ‘The Redeemer’ since I first heard it in the darkness, it’s that it doesn’t just express a lot of feelings but it invites you feel along with it.”
Among all the pleading human voices and coldly authoritative automatons there’s a pervasive feeling of the eternal bummer of humanity’s ignorance: the questions we just can’t get answers to, and the institutions and higher powers we turn to – religion, love, art, technology – that simultaneously placate and frustrate us. In fact, after that automated voice tells Blunt “what you did was wrong” in DEMON, Blunt’s character adopts this line of thought himself and mumbles “I know what I did is wrong” over the whiny final strains of NEED 2 LET U GO. He takes in the knowledge presented to him by technology and re-creates it as his own truth, just as I might google the Seven Seals of Affirmation and re-create Wikipedia’s explanation of them in my discussion of Blunt’s track.
But, at this point, it’s getting hard to see where Dean Blunt’s ideas end and mine begin. If there’s one thing I’ve consistently felt about ‘The Redeemer’ since I first heard it in the darkness, it’s that it doesn’t just express a lot of feelings but it invites you feel along with it. Maybe there is a central argument I haven’t quite uncovered yet, or pop culture references I haven’t yet picked out – all I know is, I may have to listen to it many more times before I’m satisfied with the answers I come up with to the questions raised by this music, if there are any to be found. And since this is some of Blunt’s most listenable, most human and most elegantly orchestrated work, that’s not a problem at all.