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Mr. Mitch
Devout Ben Cardew , April 25th, 2017 11:04

When you become a father certain things become apparent: you’re not young any more; night clubs are now things that happen largely to other people; and a significant percentage of popular culture is no longer interested in your fate.

That’s not to say that there aren’t brilliant books, films, songs etc. about being a father: Steve Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ or John Lennon’s ‘Beautiful Boy’, for example, manage to capture the desperate, affectionate thrill of fatherhood without resorting to blind mawkishness. But on the whole, art that speaks to fatherhood occupies a niche in popular culture that seems insignificant compared to the amount of time that being a dad is occupying your thoughts.

In the world of electronic music at large, and grime in particular, this gap is even more pronounced. They are, on the whole, both youthful genres of music, associated with going out, dancing and getting rowdy, not a trio of activities that combines well with young, needy children. And despite what people say, no one’s offspring really appreciates the work of Brian Eno / Kraftwerk / Wiley’s Devil mixes. Instead, the vast majority of children favour poorly animated YouTube songs that will drive parents to distraction by the inevitable 500th listen.

This makes Devout, the second album from Peace Edit specialist Mr. Mitch, a very special release. Mitch (aka Miles Mitchell) has long offered a unique voice within grime, favouring beat-less “peace edits” of Beach Boys’ classics when the fashion was for ferocious war dubs; and releasing vocal-free instrumental tracks when a new wave of MCs was on the march. But Devout, an album that deals with themes such as love and family under the overarching theme of fatherhood, is his most unusual move yet. “We all know the stereotype of the black dad with multiple children from multiple partners who is absent from the child’s life, we see it consistently in popular culture,” Mitch said of the album. “I want to champion the alternative, which to me is just normal.”

This isn’t, it soon becomes clear, an album simply inspired by fatherhood, or one where fatherhood is explored in abstract terms. Rather Devout is as consumed by fatherhood as only new fathers can be, an album with fatherhood stamped through it like a piece of rock. The album is bookended by ‘Intro’ and ‘Oscar’, the former featuring vocals from Mitch’s eldest son Miles; the latter a song for a new-born baby and his older brother (“He’s waiting.… He’s about to be a big brother to you.”). Meanwhile, lead track ‘Priority’ sees MC P. Money talk about his positive experiences of fatherhood (“Birthing’s powerful…. I remember when you first came out, the struggles got easy, hard work paid off”). And when Devout isn’t talking about fatherhood, songs such as ‘Fate’ and ‘VPN’ deal with the emotions we experience at the start and end of relationships.

It would be a step too far to call Devout grime’s first fatherhood album. The soft, polished cleanliness of the production here means Devout feels more grime-inspired - a kind of poppy, minimalist rhythm and grime - than an example of grime itself. And yet Mitch’s willingness to bring such open-hearted emotional honesty into grime’s orbit, a genre still largely dominated by talk of youthful escapades, is a brave move nevertheless.

Thematically, there are very few antecedents to Devout and it is a sign of grime’s new-found maturity that the astral synth lines of Mitch’s grime-inspired instrumentals actually sit pretty well with the album’s feelings of tenderness and parental love. ‘Priority’, for example, combines distant, menacing drones with synth blips and sparse, echoing percussion, ending up at the mid point between grime’s urban paranoia and the artificial euphoria of new age, while ‘Intro’’s mixture of simple chord blocks, auto tuned hooks and the burbling of a baby is a lesson in moist-eyed minimalism, a trick Mitch repeats on Art of Noise-y album centrepiece ‘My Life’. At times like these Devout genuinely - and very impressively - manages to translate the dazed euphoria of new fatherhood into musical form.

The problem with Devout, then, is not so much the album’s themes - although you imagine certain listeners may struggle to get past these - rather it is the monotony that sets in about half way through. Mitch’s sonic palette is well chosen, a mixture of grime’s angular synths, the processed, honeyed vocals of R&B and a certain pan-pipe new age-ness. But it can feel slightly limited. On Mitch’s previous album, 2014’s excellent Parallel Memories, this was offset by a melancholy, shifting lurch, as if the music felt ready to collapse under the weight of its own sadness.

Devout, however, feels more straightforward and self-assured and by the time ‘If I Wanted’ floats along, five tracks in, on yet another bed of airy chords and muffled drums, the feeling is one of slight exasperation rather than delight. It’s just too much of a good thing, like overdosing on candy floss or spending three days in bed, and it subsumes the odd moments of emotional grit that Devout offers (on ‘Priority’ and ‘Pleasure’, for example).

For all this, Devout works well on several levels. If Mitch’s goal was to create a vivid alternative to “the stereotype of the black dad”, then he has more than succeeded in his task. Quite frankly, the Mitch household sounds like an idyllic place to grow up in. If he wanted to show that grime, now well into its second decade, can engage with subjects like fatherhood, love and family then Mitch has largely succeeded in that too. And yet as an album for sit-down listening Devout is too one-paced to really satisfy. As a relatively new father, not yet ready for slippers, pipe and Travis, I wanted Devout to work. But over 12 tracks momentum starts to drag and it is hard to imagine a sleep-deprived new father getting much further than track six before they are lulled into an inappropriately deep slumber.

Devout is bold, fascinating and sweet, then, with moments of melodic brilliance and sonic mastery. But taken as a whole, the result is slightly unpalatable. As a good father Mr Mitch undoubtedly knows that too many sweets can upset the stomach. And the same logic applies to Devout: you need some some roughage to balance out the sugary treats.

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