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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Resistance songs

Images on billboards cause Jack Latham pain, which has inspired Jam City's latest album about life in our capitalist times.
Jack Latham, who records as Jam City, has taken the ills of the modern world as his subject on his new album, Dream a Garden. Courtesy C. Hatshepsut
Jack Latham, who records as Jam City, has taken the ills of the modern world as his subject on his new album, Dream a Garden. Courtesy C. Hatshepsut

The video for Unhappy, the lead single from London electronic musician Jam City’s second album Dream a Garden, is a dreamlike montage of everyday oppressions: glowing ATMs and CCTV cameras, buff billboard bodies and dystopian advertising slogans, militarised police forces and footage of war. At its close, an all-caps message flashes up: STOP BEING AFRAID. ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE. It’s arrestingly direct, a bold contrast to the numbing flicker of superimposed words and images that came before. Over tea in a bustling London cafe, Jam City – real name Jack Latham – asserts: “I want to be disrupted as much as possible. I don’t want to have my life and relationships dictated by a bigoted idea of taste or what fits me as a consumer. I want complex experiences that make me question things – it’s more fun that way.”

This is the ethos behind Dream a Garden, an unexpected and immense change of direction that, first and foremost, disrupts the arc of Latham’s creativity. Formerly known for minimalist club-focused tracks, his 2012 debut Classical Curves was ruthless in its starkness: a polished, metallic machine of an album that sounded pristine even when upping the violence with juddering rhythms. By contrast, Dream a Garden’s sonic palette is dominated by fuzzed-out beats and washes of reverb-drenched and processed guitar. Most surprising of all, there’s Latham’s own voice, singing actual songs and pretty melodies. But it’s not a volte-face, according to him – it’s an inversion. If Classical Curves was inspired by the gleaming surfaces of modern capitalism – vast glass edifices and opulent lobbies – then Dream a Garden, excavating what lies beneath, is its emotional ­fallout.

“So many of my friends are struggling, feeling depressed in some way, under the pressures of money and living in this kind of society,” says Latham. “Dream a Garden is about the personal effects of living under capitalism. Why do I feel s*** and why do the people I love feel s*** when they look at billboards? It was a process of trying to work through those feelings, that culture – what society values that makes you feel like you don’t measure up.”

Dream a Garden ambushes the listener with unexpected emotion: if social alienation is, by now, a well-worn theme among left-field artists, few take it as personally as Latham does here. The album sounds like slowly drowning in the dampness and detritus of 21st-century Britain. The percussion on Unhappy clanks like an empty tin can; A Walk Down Chapel is underpinned by a beat that both wheezes and pounds, relentless despite being muffled in the mix. The effect is aqueous and queasy. Later in the album, Black Friday abandons a brief vocal lament within the first minute in favour of a numbed drone; eventually, a lone guitar slashes its way across it like a survivor in a post-apocalyptic shopping mall.

The story isn’t just told in the music, though. “I pushed up against the point where I had to sing,” says Latham, who had never previously sung on record before and who was inspired by the way in which punk artists such as Siouxsie Sioux could use flat delivery in the service of beautiful melodies. “You have to say it and be obvious about it sometimes.” The resulting lyrics are startling and moving, building a picture of a ground-down soul: “When it looks like fascism you wanna give up and get sick of the world,” as Latham puts it on A Walk Down Chapel. The chorus of Today runs: “I guess it’s back to the porn and Adderall, next to no pay.” Referencing a ubiquitous London estate agent, Crisis captures a tiny moment of kicking back: “You sigh under a bright pink sky, spit at another Foxtons sign.”

Even more impressive, Latham has written fully fledged songs; it’s a craft he is continuing to develop, having spent time in Los Angeles this winter writing songs for artists including the much-touted R&B singer Kelela and the Roc Nation-signed Sunni Colón. The process has been beneficial to him in other ways, too. “I learnt to sing enough to the point where I became comfortable with my own voice – it was a self-empowering, positive thing for me. This culture we live in doesn’t want us to love ourselves. Now I love to sing. I feel mentally healthier because of it. What I would always say to young musicians is, find out how your art is therapy to you …”

The use of the voice ties into the record’s politics, as well. “A neoliberal culture swallows everything,” Latham points out. “You could make a political record, and it’d get subsumed into it and stripped of its power. What would it take for that not to happen? The one thing that isn’t homogenised is our individual voices, as diverse as they can be.” He feels that today’s underground scene has become complacent: stuck on a rhetoric of praising “forward-thinking” sounds in an increasingly corporatised space that is marginalising the non-hierarchical or working-class roots of genres such as jungle and grime.

Latham openly acknowledges his own complicity – “I tour, I charge money for my records and shows” – but argues that it shouldn’t invalidate his questioning. Quite the opposite: the all-encompassing nature of modern capitalism is precisely what needs to be interrogated.

“I’ve met so many men who are deeply invested in music, film or art but with this colonial, masculinist energy whereby we always have to be moving forward, always progressing. What’s the worth of that if it only operates on an aesthetic level? It’s a death drive.” More important than shiny new sounds, to Latham, is the need to have a message anchored in contemporary culture.

He says there was no flashpoint when he realised this was the album he wanted to make; rather, living in London, it has been a gradual feeling of being surrounded by oppressive images. Latham keeps a folder in his phone of particularly egregious examples: a gym company exhorting a man crumpled on the floor to “punish yourself” and “destroy yourself”, a watch brand ordering consumers “Don’t crack under pressure” like an employer cracking the whip. “It’s not just that you’re being sold things, but that they seem to be getting ever more unapologetic about how sexist they are, how fascist they are,” he says.

In the liner notes to Dream a Garden, Latham thanks the Feminist Reading Group, which introduced him to texts such as bell hooks’s The Will to Change, whose discussion of masculinity and love seems particularly relevant: “She says that in order for men to be granted the benefits of a patriarchal system, they have to be broken down and brutalised. And we’re told it’s not OK to have certain body types, not OK to lose your head, not OK to be poor – it’s about doing whatever you can to get to the top.”

Dream a Garden may nail contemporary alienation, but ultimately, it is boundlessly optimistic. Through the sonic murk, prettiness pokes out like flowers: the plunge into the chorus of Today, the rich bassline of Good Lads, Bad Lads, the keening guitar of Proud. If much of the album details what Latham describes as “lonely lives in front of your laptop screen and feeling this worthlessness that’ll only ever be exacerbated by mainstream culture”, comfort and balm is consistently found in human connection. “There’s a Sam Delaney sci-fi book where, when a character falls in love, the contours of the city start moving and the whole environment starts to reorientate itself,” says Latham, whose girlfriend is the artist and historian Canela Blue Roan, the co-director of the Unhappy video (the clip concludes with the pair walking hand-in-hand into a colour-distorted sunset). The way in which he talks about love mirrors his earlier discussion of the necessity of disruption: “It takes you places you would never normally go.”

At its heart, Dream a Garden is an album that searches for ways to resurrect the human spirit. It’s both a personal and political quest, and on Crisis the two are conflated. In one sense, it’s a classic example of the intensely romantic image of two people sheltering from a cruel world together; in another, inspired by the 2011 London riots which Latham lived through and which informed much of the spirit of the album, it’s invigorated enough to be on the front lines as well. “The sirens aren’t far away / but I never, ever felt this way” sings Latham at its conclusion – crystallising the realisation that the emotional undercurrent to his music is itself the ideal form of resistance.

Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review.

Dream a Garden by Jam City is available from Amazon.

thereview@thenational.ae