We’re All Alone In This Together (Virgin)
Jeez, this is intense. Like getting an extreme close-up: every line, pore, hair, bead of sweat so detailed.
But the close-up isn’t via camera; it doesn’t offer you even that little bit of separation. No, this is a closeup offered by UK rapper, Dave, being in your face, literally. Right up there so you feel his breath rustling your eyebrows and see his jaw muscles working furiously. So close that you can anticipate if not what he’s going to say – good luck with that folks! – then at least the tenor of what’s to come, as you see him brace, or coil, or thicken with the unprotected feeling.
This intensity isn’t a heavy burden sonically: We’re All Alone In This Together is not claustrophobic and all enveloping so that the burden falls on you to carry the weight of music as well as the words. Peppered with pungent sounds and sharp angles as it is, there are tracks, like the strangely tender Three Rivers, which is not much more than piano and a bass, and the darker-shaded Verdansk, where there’s only distant keyboards and a broadfaced drum pattern in the foreground, that offer so much air in the sound, space to move - for Dave as much as us.
Nor does the weight come in the sound of and around Dave’s voice. It’s clear, central, unadorned, but not rough. Even the guest voices, from Stormzy, WizKid and Boj have light treatment, and treated vocals from James Blake (typically, caught between unreal and unravelled) and Snoh Aalegra (elegantly turning up and around him) work in half light rather than closed-in darkness.
Part of the intensity is in the not exactly hidden subtext of the title. As anyone here or in Dave’s UK knows, having been watching governments flounder between seeking unity and singling out “miscreants”, between sharing responsibility and shifting the blame, for these sub-Thatcherite rulers there is no society. There are communities, but we make them ourselves, and must hold them together against the very forces who claim to unite us.
In the aforementioned Three Rivers, this is made explicit in the treatment of the Windrush generation, those Caribbean immigrants who didn’t just rebuild post-war Britain but strongly flavoured and changed the country, only to find 50 or 60 years later that they were considered foreign and disposable. “Windrush babies from Kingston go Brixton/To say that they’re the life of the party you are wrong/My Jamaicans the entire party.”
But Dave extends the story to the Eastern Europeans brought in to build and mend and rejuvenate but kept as separate and damaged, and those from the Middle East looking to live first of all, then maybe thrive. “But your asylum got you living in a different war/Because the British want to know what you’re living here for.”
Throughout the record we are regularly reminded of the dichotomy in promises of reaping reward for effort and the thwarted opportunities to do so, of the separation when aspiration outweighs trust and roots, of the balancing act in advice being sought from those still working out questions themselves.
In the opening track, We’re All Alone, Dave tells of getting a message from a young fan struggling with the intention of killing himself, and despite recognising that “Me and him got more in common than he thinks”, his advice is to “see a shrink so I can go on and live with myself”. But that instinctive, imperfect response, maybe because “my life is full of plot holes and I’m filling them up”, isn’t the only one, and after saying that “I told my fans we are all alone in this together/You can trust me all the shit that you been feeling of being feeling with me”, he returns to that young fan to tell us that “I got a message from a kid on Monday evening saying he’s grateful I responded and is feeling at peace with himself … Me and him have more in common than he thinks”.
His own background and presence as Nigerian-British, together but also alone, underscores so much of this album: in anger, yes; in curiosity and frustration too; but lest it all seem grim, also in pleasure and celebration. “No enemy can curse me/Bad energy I give back to the sender/My life, blessing must enter,” he says in Lazarus, and you are reminded at times that this 23-year-old has his eyes on love of sorts, and the absurd occasionally too, in the crazy juxtapositions in his rhymes.
Still, levity is rare, and it is the accumulation of experiences and the clarity of his observations that begins to create that pressure of tension and feeling. By the time we get to the penultimate track, Heart Attack, where the frankness is almost brutal over gentle guitar chords, the domestic abuse, the cycle of abuse, the indifference to abuse, builds to a quiet storm and an older woman’s voice beyond her tether, and in some ways it all makes sense.
There’s a lot in here, though it only lasts an hour. That’s enough right now - it’s intense.