Books Culture

Kae Tempest’s ‘On Connection’: A Review

Two of the most important songs in my life are Kae Tempest’s ‘Hold Your Own’, and ‘People’s Faces’. After finishing their first work of non-fiction, ‘On Connection’, Tempest has become, overnight, one of the most important authors in my life.

Tempest has a way with words, both written and spoken, that is so meaningful, so strikingly true, that you are just not the same after you have read or listened to them as before.

It will come as no surprise to you that as soon as I had my hands on this small, 120-page book, officially published on October 1st, I finished it in one evening.

I had unashamedly high expectations, hopes of what I was about to read, based on the powerful music that Tempest produces and which, every time I listen to it, strikes a chord in me unstruck by anyone else.

I was not disappointed.

Indeed, how could I be anything else but enthralled by a book which is cut from the same cloth as Tempest’s last album, ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’, one that explores similar themes of connection, numbness and meaning.

On Connection is about, “creativity, connection and creative connection.” It was written during the Covid-19 lockdown in which we have been both deprived of much creative connection (much of the ‘arts’ industry has been labelled unviable by government ministers), but have also found ourselves connecting with each other in more personal and intimate ways, relinquished from the duties of the fast-paced daily grind of our normal lives.

Tempest’s message is that artists will always fail: they will never be able to perfectly translate a thought into words, sound, colour or whatever other medium, which wholly encapsulates that precise feeling.

Whilst this is, of course, undoubtedly true, Tempest comes closer to this elusive aim than most.

“Connection,” they write, “is the feeling of landing in the present tense.”

That line alone is worth the book’s £9.99 price tag, though viewing ‘On Connection’ as a product to be purchased and consumed is evidently a paradoxical and futile mindset.

Tempest opens the book by telling us: “This book is about connection. About how immersion in creativity can bring us closer to each other and help us cultivate a greater self-awareness.”

One example of creative connection is how, a study in 2017 found, theatre audience members’ heartbeats synchronised, overcoming all outside differences to “’produce a common physiological experience…’”

Returning to the idea of connection, which Tempest defines so beautifully, the author shows how the feeling of landing in the present is part of the same spectrum of experience upon which numbness is also felt. They eloquently describe their own experiences with both, charting their battles with depression, anxiety and panic disorder.

Perhaps one of the most mesmerising, yet most obviously logical, features of ‘On Connection’ is how it reads just like a Kae Tempest album. In some parts of the book, I felt as if I was reading  extra lyrics to songs that didn’t feature on ‘The Book of Traps of and Lessons’.

Indeed, one of the most powerful lyrics from ‘People’s Faces’ is “More empathy/Less greed/More respect.”

Tempest builds on these words in the book, defining empathy as, “remembering that everybody has a story,” and that to be empathetic is to, “make space to hear someone else’s story before immediately telling your own.”

In the final chapter, ‘Feeling It Happen’, Tempest writes straight from the ‘People’s Faces’ playbook:

“So

Put your phone down.

Listen to the birds.

Build a fire in a quiet place.

Pay attention to the details when you kiss your lover.”

Tempest’s creativity enables the reader, in the author’s own words, to “feel what you are feeling”. They beat the drum in your mind, whose faint rumblings you’ve heard before, but which now come alive, awakened by a deep sense of meaning about which you have previously only thought, but now can truly feel.

My advice to the reader of ‘On Connection’ would be the same as to the listener to ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’: take it all in in a single emotional session. Connect with it all at once, live it for those few hours, be nothing else but the reader.

Part way through the book, Tempest recounts meeting a homeless man whilst on a book promotion in the States. The old man carried with him everywhere a work of poetry given to him by his mother, explaining that this connected him with her, and brought him comfort.

Fortunately, ‘On Connection’ is small enough for me to do the same thing.

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) is Environment News Editor at The Oxford Blue for Michaelmas 2020. He is in his second year studying History and Politics at Balliol.