Prom 35: New York: Sound of a City, Royal Albert Hall
Featuring various styles and singers accompanied by Jules Buckley’s Heritage Orchestra, this late night prom promised to be a panoply of New York’s modern music scene.
In the end it felt more like a mishmash. The evening started with alternating performances from singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten and queer R’n’B experimentalist serpentwithfeet, who released his debut album soil in June. The prevailing tone was subdued: serpentwithfeet’s sporadic, semi-sung spoken word backed by funeral-march drums on “four ethers”; sparse, super-slow piano (à la James Blake) on “bless ur heart”; and fragmented gospel harmonies on “mourning song”. serpentwithfeet’s delivery was engagingly twitchy and meandering, yet in the Royal Albert Hall’s vast auditorium the meaning of his lyrics remained slippery, elusive.
Sharon Van Etten had more success communicating her songs’ sombre emotion. On 2014 single “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” and a downtempo cover of Skeeter Davis’ 1962 single “The End of the World” (which you may recognise from the Fallout 4 soundtrack), Van Etten was solidly underpinned by ponderous drums and swelling, cinematic strings from the Heritage Orchestra, who return to this year’s Proms following their performance with musical polymath Jacob Collier. By the encore, Van Etten’s rich New Jersey croon had developed a crackly frailty that well-suited LCD Soundsystem’s “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” – the only song that seemed intrinsically tied to the evening’s theme.
Appearing in a zebra-print-dress Nitty Scott initially injected a much-needed sense of a vibrancy to proceedings. “Flower Child” was characterised by articulate conversational rapping, unexpected flow changes and an orchestral arrangement that adroitly augmented the jazz-tinge of its studio recording (which also features a guest verse from Kendrick Lamar). Scott’s later songs were less intriguing. “La Diaspora” stuck to predictable, repetitive rhyme schemes and a generic Latin-flavoured hip-hop backing, while “Still I Rise” reduced a resolute refrain from a fierce Maya Angelou poem into mawkish positivism.
Hercules and Love Affair’s pop effervescence arrived too late – the constant entering and exiting having punctured momentum. “Hercules’ Theme” was a glossy disco-funk instrumental accompanied by sassy brass licks from the Heritage Orchestra, before “Blind” – originally sung by Anohni (then Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons) – combined a seductive conga rhythm, glitzy 80s-style arpeggiation and a strong vocal from Krystle Warren, who swapped Hegarty’s sinuous, vulnerable vibrato for deeply-intoned conviction. A moment of high-camp pop lustre in an otherwise fairly mundane programme.
Other than their being from New York, it remained unclear why these artists were deemed especially emblematic of the Big Apple when their lyrics seemed more informed by introspection than their experience of the city. Ultimately the New York theme never really cohered. Prom 35 felt more like an uncoordinated cruise through the middle of New York’s roads than a revealing exploration of its backstreets.
Featured image: Chris Christodoulou