Illustration by Tilly Binucci
As someone who grew up never listening to much music, I can understand that navigating the world of music for yourself can be a pretty daunting venture. A lot of the musical jargon, especially language surrounding genres, feels very excluding: particularly when coming from the mouth of a white cishet man trying to show off some obscure artist that they discovered down a Spotify rabbit hole. It is also difficult to see how the labels of genres are even useful, especially when songs can often be characterised under so many, and their lines are increasingly blurred. With all this said, as simply a fan of music, I want to explore some of these “obscure” genres for myself through a selection of key tracks and see what value they have for even the average listener.
This week: Spoken-Word Post-Punk.
Despite the wordy name, it is undeniably a fitting one and it does helpfully distinguish this newly emerging style from other post-punk. However, it can’t be described as wholly new. Artists have been speaking over rock tracks for decades, such as The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” on their album White Light/White Heat, released in 1968. It provides a helpful introduction to the genre as it has much in common with the modern movement: primarily the sharp contrast between the highly poetical spoken lyrics and the heavy, fuzzy guitar riffs. The song started out as a short story written by band member Lou Reed and performed with the Welsh dulcet tones of John Cale. The track “The Gift” comments on several social issues: diet culture, alcoholism, and most of all the sexual expectations of women and men’s treatment of them as property. The combination of upbeat riffs and dark lyrics is suitably unsettling.
My next track is “Good Morning, Captain” by Slint, from the Spiderland album released in 1991. Again, it comes before the official recognition of the genre but deserves a mention. The song is a stylised and haunting retelling of maritime lore, alluding to the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A similar simple bassline accompanies the narrative of a man suffering from isolation to the point of hallucination. The sailor’s gradual insanity, heralded by the fast ticking at 4:15, transports the song from folklore into raw emotion, with layered whispering which crescendos into McMahan’s chilling screams of “I miss you”, while dissonant, heavy guitar and drums disrupt the droning bass. This track is perhaps darker than current spoken word post-punk, both lyrically and musically, but it is undoubtedly a key inspiration for the genre.
Officially our first spoken word post-punk track is “7-eleven” by black midi. Like “The Gift”, it follows a narrative structure with a repeated riff, but it sports simple yet witty lyrics. Through bassist Cameron Picton’s questionable southern accent, we gain a first-person perspective into the unfortunate gas station trip of a young man. The bassline consists of a single note, layered with twangy riffs reminiscent of a banjo. Humorously delivered lines such as “but they ran out of eggs” cut through any monotony, while the drums and electric guitars chime on the first beat of every other bar as the tides of fate inevitably push the man closer to the “great big fuckoff truck”. The song finally calms with a ringing bass note accompanied now by light piano chords and glittering synths like the shattered glass on the dusty road catching the sunlight. It is at once simple and endlessly complex; uplifting and jarring; a basic story, and a social commentary on the futility of life.
Up next is “Televised Mind” by Fontaines D.C. from A Hero’s Death in 2020. The band is often associated with post-punk groups such as IDLES, but they fit perfectly in this list, as their politically pessimistic lyrics are distinct from post-punk’s often rebellious and anarchic tones. In the words of frontman Grian Chatten, this song is about the “cultural echo chamber” and how “opinions get reinforced by constant agreement”, with droning echoing guitar riffs layered with crashing drums and simple vocals create a hypnotic effect like the numbing media. The repeated line “what ya call it” is a Dublin expression like “umm”, suggesting that people are distracted and empty of any critical thought. It is a song that finds artistic inspiration in the toxic political atmosphere caused by Brexit.
Although the genre is (unsurprisingly) dominated by white men, there are a number of women who are innovating in the genre (not to mention individuals like Kae Tempest who have had a lasting impact on the spoken word genre more widely). Dry Cleaning vocalist Florence Shaw is a true poet, delivering witty, whimsical lines in her signature deadpan style, accompanied by clean riffs and minimal drums that let you focus on the lyrics. Often found on stage with a book in her hands, Shaw has the incredible ability to make you feel disgusted with the mundane, especially in the track “Leafy” from their 2021 album New Long Leg. Lines such as “clean the fat out of the grill pan” are a wonderful expression of life post-Brexit, facing a bleak future devoid of meaning.
Another exciting voice on the scene is Sinead O’Brien, whose use of Sprechgesang (spoken singing) is enchanting. In her 2020 single “Roman Ruins”, the wandering placement of rhyme, lines blending, and pausing seemingly at random, evoke the sense of time-shifting, just as she is “out of sync with the community”. The western feel of the twanging guitars is fitting for the “crumbling down city of my own Roman Ruins”. Like Shaw, O’Brien focuses heavily on lyricism, taking inspiration from poets such as Yeats and O’Hara.
Our next artist Black Country, New Road started primarily with live shows, which explains the experimental feel of their 2019 single “Sunglasses”. The premise of the song is a narrator, possibly vocalist Isaac Wood himself, who views his partner in her family home, absorbed in their wealthy lifestyle. The ambiguous point of view means that he is both part of the “high-tech, wraparound, translucent, blue-tinted fortress” and distant enough to remind the woman that she lives off “Daddy’s job”. It underlines the hypocrisy of our society: we understand the privileges we have, but we are not prepared to give them up. This song also nicely articulates a potential conflict within the genre. Since many of the artists behind these pessimistic and critical lyrics are white men, it may be difficult for wider audiences to truly relate and connect with the music, which seemingly undermines the very purpose of such socio-politically-minded tracks.
Finally, we have Squid, a Brighton band that released their debut album Bright Green Field in 2021. Squid is perhaps the most experimental of those seen so far. Track “GSK” uses orchestral and brass motifs to colour the scene of a dystopian “concrete island” ruled by Big Pharma – the song’s subject has no life outside of his work on the GlaxoKline. Chromatic guitar riffs, pulsing trumpets, panning synths, and layered vocals in the second verse feel like the perfect backing track for a slow-motion car montage in a 90s heist movie. This debut album is carefully crafted and musically complex: an exciting contribution to the genre.
Just as post-punk bands sprouted in the early 80s undoubtedly as a result of Thatcher’s policies and The Troubles, it is unsurprising that a similar wave of artists has responded in such a way to the cultural identity crisis instigated by Brexit. Despite the general pessimism that pervades the lyrics, the energy is exciting and built for live performance. Inspiration has been drawn from many genres and each band hats its own unique flavour, but there is something refreshing about the music, often with poetry brought to the forefront, and accompanied by experimental instrumentals. It opens up endless doors for artistic possibility, and it is exciting to think about what could be created with a more diverse demographic of spoken word post-punk artists.