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Album Of The Week

No Laughing Matter: Temps’ Party Gator Purgatory
Alastair Shuttleworth , May 18th, 2023 08:34

Comedian James Acaster’s new hip-hop project drafts 40 performers into a highly inventive, maximalist debut album. Listeners who drop their guard will be richly rewarded, finds Alastair Shuttleworth

Credit: Willow Shields

If Party Gator Purgatory isn’t the weirdest hip-hop album of the year-so-far, it can at least lay strong claim to having the weirdest premise. In February 2020, comedian James Acaster began developing a mockumentary about leaving stand-up for an ill-advised music career. The pilot saw him recording loops on his childhood drum kit, then-untouched for twelve years, accompanied by a Wilson The Volleyball-esque muse: a cuddly alligator toy he won at a funfair as a child, emblazoned with ‘Party Gator’. When the March lockdowns derailed this project, Acaster invited 40 international hip-hop and avant-garde musicians he’d met through his recent book Perfect Sound Whatever to record over these loops. Adopting the production alias Temps, and an alligator costume modelled after the since-lost ‘Party Gator’, Acaster began collaging these recordings into hip-hop tracks.

The idea of this all foregrounding a credible album might hoist anyone’s eyebrows to levels matching Acaster’s signature ‘punchline face’. Really? The man who gave us the ‘ready-to-eat apricots’ joke? Not only is Party Gator Purgatory a genuinely excellent record though, Acaster’s bizarre approach has produced something genuinely one-of-a-kind: free-wheeling through jazz, glitch-pop and experimental hip-hop. Listeners who can curb their cynicism will be rewarded with a technicolour, maximalist, hugely inventive album.

In each song on Party Gator Purgatory, Acaster collages features from several members of his eclectic, 40-strong ensemble: each of whom gets free-reign over their part. This causes each track to violently jerk between different rhythms, palettes and moods. ‘Kept’ cuts from NNAMDÏ’s pitch-shifted a capella vocals to a maelstrom of percussion led by Gaston Bandimic’s frenetic rapping. These shifts continue between Xenia Rubinos’ disorientating layered vocals, Quelle Chris’ dextrous rapping and a discordant turn recalling Pink Floyd’s ‘Bike’. This gives Party Gator Purgatory a writhing character, complimented by its touches of free jazz: from the wild saxophone closing ‘At(moves)’ to bb tombo’s synth solos.

The extraordinary variety of the album’s vocalists is one of its great joys. The title-track places Babar Luck’s dry, springy verses in sharp contrast with Law Holt’s ethereal alt-pop hooks. While rapper Quelle Chris appears on seven of the album’s ten tracks, Party Gator Purgatory is full of glittering one-off features: highlights include Wheelchair Sports Camp’s brooding verse on ‘At(moves)’.

There are unexpectedly moving moments of shared sentiment between different vocalists, particularly around narratives of mental health and vulnerability. Quelle Chris’ claim in ‘At(moves)’, “I just need a safe place to store my mind” chimes with the exhausted, uneasy tone of Yoni Wolf’s feature in ‘Slowreturn’: “I’m just one guy / Each day I try / If sometimes I’m fried / I don’t try.”

Above all else though, Party Gator Purgatory is a tremendous amount of fun. Acaster’s production and curation contributes to a sprightly, playful character throughout, and it’s full of absurd humour. ‘Partygatorresurrection’ closes with a string of non-sequiturs from rapper and comedian Open Mike Eagle: “I’m rolling up like a Metroid ball! / I like to dance like I’m eight feet tall!… My new OS is installed!”

So how does the ‘Party Gator’, referenced in the album’s title and artwork, factor into things? Featured in Acaster’s aborted pilot, subsequently lost, and finally replaced with a full-sized alligator suit worn in Temps’ music videos, it illustrates how the collapse of one artistic project has given birth to another.

This arc is referenced in the titles of ‘PartygatorR.I.P.’, ‘Partygatorpurgatory’ and ‘Partygatorresurrection’. However, aside from Denmark Vessey’s extended riff on alter-egos in ‘PartygatorR.I.P’, these tracks do little to advance this narrative lyrically. Acaster has notably not featured the same vocalists across these pieces: the only element they share is the sprawling, video game OST-inspired synth arrangements of bb tombo. This disjointedness, even when a coherent arc appears to be at play, underscores Acaster’s prioritising of his artists’ differing voices.

Acaster’s own presence in the album is felt most clearly through his initial contributions: the drum loops by himself and jazz drummer Seb Rochford from the aborted mockumentary. These are often heard in isolation, bridging the album’s shifts in tempo and rhythm: from the dramatic fill into the outro of ‘At(moves)’ to the central pattern in ‘Ificouldjust’. While the album explores a range of textures, the drums are generally heard with the same lo-fi, dusty production, expressing a stable, authorial voice. For fans of Acaster’s comedy, however, this album’s frenetic silliness may prove easy to compare to his stand-up sets: full of mischievous course-changes, peacocking cleverness and flashes of vulnerability.

The closer of Stewart Lee’s 2009 stand-up special If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One saw him perform a slow, sentimental rendition of Steve Earle’s ‘Galway Girl’: the joke being that the audience would find this more uncomfortable than his most off-colour material. Given Acaster’s Lee-esque penchant for template-breaking meta-jokes, his earnest shift into music may lead to similar incredulity or suspicion: this was, after all, going to form the basis for a whole mockumentary. If listeners can drop their guard, they will likely find Party Gator Purgatory a deeply original, exciting album – more than worth taking seriously.