Review: On Connection, Kae Tempest

Published in The Observer October 25, 2020

Kae Tempest has added one more string to an already crowded bow: On Connection is the first nonfiction work by this Mercury prize-winning musician, Ted Hughes award-winning poet, acclaimed playwright, novelist, and chief creative chronicler of the last decade. It’s also Tempest’s first publication since changing their name from Kate, and using they/them pronouns.

On Connection is a book-length essay whose subject has been somewhat overtaken by recent events. Its thesis – that our need for connection can be fostered by creativity in general and live art in particular – has become all the more compelling since lockdown. Who hasn’t missed the electric charge that crackles between artist and audience? Or felt frustrated at how live music and theatre are undermined and dismissed by a government that fails to recognise their immense value?

But Tempest isn’t talking about merely missing a good night out at a gig or show. On Connection looks at creativity as a means of counteracting the numbness of the modern world. We get so caught up in an ever-spinning consumerist hamster wheel that we neglect what is true within ourselves and one another. “In a disconnected state, self-awareness is one of the first frequencies to be scooped out and muted,” they write. “When this happens, I need creativity to reconnect me.”

Throughout, there are familiar shades of mysticism and mindfulness, of anti-capitalist theorising and the hippies’ tune-in, drop-out arguments. More explicitly, Tempest writes about being inspired by Carl Jung’s The Red Book and his theory that we possess a wild, inner “spirit of the depths” as well as a “spirit of the times”, the everyday ego that’s concerned with more immediate goals and ambitions. Both are needed, Tempest feels, but we’ve got them way out of whack. “In order to regain our balance, we need to remaster the ability to go deep, to ‘turn away from outer things’. To face what is in ourselves.”

Each chapter is prefaced by William Blake quotations, and it’s no wonder his writing appeals to Tempest: both artists’ work is concerned with tapping into something ancient and mythic. Tempest’s call to reconnect with what Blake terms the “infinite” within ourselves proves persuasive and profound.

Anyone who has seen Tempest live has likely witnessed their talent for sparking connection, even if they insist this is a mysterious, unreliable thing. But when it does come, it is wondrous: “I am granted access to a freedom so resolute it leaves me shining head to toe… Looking out at the crowd, I see reality at last. People really feeling things.”

While some of their thoughts may not be new, they are surely worth repeating in this disconnected, distracted world. And Tempest, as you’d expect, delivers them gorgeously, rhythmically, but also with clarity and a fierce grace.

I drank On Connection down like a fresh glass of water.

Where next?