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How Contemporary Musicians Are Embracing The Spoken Word Album
The Best Spoken Word Album GRAMMY category has typically provided an opportunity for figures outside the music industry to get their hands on one of those coveted gold-plated trophies. In recent years its winners have flitted between the fields of ex-White House figures (Michelle Obama, Jimmy Carter) and beloved showbiz veterans (Joan Rivers, Carol Burnett, Carrie Fisher), while cult filmmaker John Waters and celebrated humorist David Sedaris are both regular nominees.
Contemporary music, though, has found a wide range of pop/rock talent merging into spoken word territory. Seemingly out of nowhere, spoken word has become the art form of choice for the more poetically-minded musician keen to prove they know their Poes from their Plaths.
Lana Del Rey, a six-time GRAMMY nominee for her more familiar brand of femme fatale pop, has had an impressively prolific 18 months; the sadcore queen has recorded two regular LPs and written two poetry collections, the first of which she’s also released in audio form.
Of course, with her tales of tragic romance and warped depictions of the American Dream, Del Rey’s output has always had a literate quality. She’s regularly spoken of finding inspiration in the works of Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman – the former’s "Howl" and the latter’s "I Sing the Body Electric" were even recited in her 2013 short film Tropico.
But Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass allowed Del Rey to fully embrace her poetic ambitions. Penned amidst a bout of writer’s block while working on what many consider to be her masterpiece, Norman F***ing Rockwell, the audiobook doesn’t entirely abandon musical accompaniment. Regular cohort Jack Antonoff provides plenty of electronic shimmers and delicate piano backing throughout. But the focus here is very much on Del Rey’s expressive tones and freestyle musings on everything from indecision and alienation to the fallacy of worshipping Jim Morrison.
Backed by the claim that she "tore apart every word until I was able to write the perfect poem," Del Rey’s spot of moonlighting arrived during an unexpected boom period for the spoken word album. Only a month previously Imelda May, an Irish songstress renowned for her jazz-tinged rockabilly, had also displayed her wordsmithery on Slip of the Tongue.
As with Del Rey, May also uses subtle musical arrangements to add texture to her words on womanhood, sexuality and spirituality. But frustrated by how her previous record had been misinterpreted as a marriage break-up album, the Dubliner ensures her lyrical themes are far clearer this time around with a delivery every bit as commanding as her signature 1950s quiff.
Soon after, The Kills' frontwoman Alison Mosshart proudly declared her gearhead tendencies on Sound Wheel, a companion piece to a book of photography, poetry and paintings titled Car Ma. Although there’s the occasional concession to the gutsy blues rock of her day job, the majority of its 47 (yes, 47) tracks are unaccompanied reflections on the "never-ending search for the spirit under the hood" delivered in Mosshart’s unmistakable tobacco and whisky-soaked speaking voice.
Elsewhere, Mercury Prize nominees Black Midi have released Tales of Suspense and Revenge, an anthology of short stories by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Robert Tressell read over some typically experimental jams. And even Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page has got in on the action, adding bursts of feedback and echo as producer of poet girlfriend Scarlett Sabet’s debut album Catalyst.
Of course, well-known artists channeling their inner poet is nothing new. See the likes of David Bowie ("Future Legend"), The Velvet Underground ("The Gift") and Morrissey ("Sorrow Will Come in the End"). The Shangri-Las ("Past, Present and Future"), James Brown ("King Heroin") and Daft Punk ("Giorgio by Moroder") even graced the Billboard charts with their spoken word efforts. But dedicating entire albums to the craft used to be the preserve of full-time storytellers like Gil-Scott Heron, Henry Rollins and John Cooper Clarke.
So what’s encouraging such artists to speak rather than sing into their microphone? Well, a new wave of spoken word performers are now proving that the art form can work on a bigger platform. Album of the Year winner Dave stole the show at this year’s BRIT Awards with a powerful piece of performance poetry addressing his homeland’s institutional racism.
Ted Hughes Award recipient Kae Tempest, meanwhile, has brought their Wu-Tang Clan-meets-William Blake vibe to the masses with several high-profile festivals slots including Glastonbury. Spoken word has even reached prime-time TV thanks to the inspirational speeches of Californian Brandon Leake, "America’s Got Talent"'s first-ever poet finalist, and indeed winner.
And then there’s the rise of the InstaPoet. Artists like Rupi Kaur and R.M Drake have amassed millions of followers with their daily words of wisdom. Perhaps as a result, a SSPA study in 2017 showed that more Americans (28 million, in fact) are engaging with poetry in the social media age than they’ve done the rest of the 21st Century.
Few pop star poets better exemplify this than Mike Posner. Three years after topping charts across Europe with a super-meta ode to dropping Molly in Ibiza, the party boy dropped a 16-track spoken word collection verbosely titled i was born in detroit on a very very very very very very very cold day.
"It's all just water and it's coming out of different faucets," Posner told Billboard about the unlikely poetic streak he developed on his 2016 tour. Tear Drops and Balloons, a more expansive collection featuring poems titled "My Favorite Stain" and "i'm thinking about horses," arrived just two months later.
You wouldn’t be surprised if Billie Eilish committed to the concept, either. Last year's five-time GRAMMY winner has acknowledged Del Rey as a major influence and has already ventured into spoken word territory with "Not My Responsibility," a short film featuring a defiant statement against body shaming.
It’s easy to see the appeal. Sure, artists have more platforms to speak directly and candidly to their audience than ever before. But most Instagram captions and Twitter posts get lost in the social media ether within hours of their upload. Spoken word offers both freedom of expression and a capturing for posterity away from the confines of the 280-character box. And there’s no need to pander to any Spotify algorithms, either. It may not be a stretch to say that former presidents and comedic legends should expect to face some spoken word category competition in the future.