Professor Elemental – School of Whimsy – Album Review

“I’m unfashionable but made to measure, cos one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”

It has been ten years since Professor Elemental, aka Paul Alborough, released the music video for his song ‘Cup of Brown Joy’, bringing his unique form of whimsical delight to – well, anyone who wanted it. And who doesn’t want some whimsical delight in their life?

The Prof is a chap-hop artist, with a focus on steampunk, comedy, and improvisation. His music embraces silliness and surrealism, pokes gentle fun at Britishness and ‘traditional’ British values (because we love to send ourselves up), and cheers on the making of art and the finding of happiness. In short, he peddles optimism, and if you’re not such a cynic that this makes you sick then it might be just what you need.

What the Professor is all about is stories: autobiographical analyses, inspirational anecdotes, tall tales, and flights of fancy, told through rap, skits, mash-ups, and remixes. The Professor’s backstory – and you might garner this as you listen, but it’s fun to know in advance – goes something like this: he’s an inventor, who lives in a mansion with his butler Geoffrey, who is an augmented orang-utan. He time-travels, drinks tea, and is also a steampunk rapper. Or something… it gets a little confusing.

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Much of Professor Elemental’s work plays like an inspirational meme or a self-help book, and although that might sound slightly dismissive I mean it entirely as a compliment. Music that is deliberately positive and uplifting is something to be applauded. It’s something that the Prof does well, and it feels like it’s from the heart.

‘Don’t be scared; nobody noticed, nobody cared… make adrenalin work for you’ sings the Prof in ‘Nervous’: a well-meaning ditty about dealing with social anxiety that re-introduces inept butler Geoffrey, who on this occasion forgot to pack the parachutes… ‘Comfort Zone’ uses the framework of a ballroom dance rhythm, as the Prof moves ‘back: forwards-back’ in pushing past perceived boundaries and breaking into new artistic territory. It commentates on his own career, including the ‘baseless’ accusations of racism that have apparently been levelled at him by an academic or two. He puts on his fighting trousers and counters with ‘chap-hop is a parody of class not race’.

‘Make Good Art pt 2’, which features Willie Evans Jr and Jesse Dangerously, advocates making art that is good for you, taking what happens to you in life and making your own kind of art – whatever that might be – out of it. And then there’s the extremely chilled ‘Downside Up’, which features the gorgeous voice of Ella Jean, and is about rolling with the punches that life throws at you. Its uplifting refrain is ‘just remember what you love’ and this is the song that immediately stood out and stuck with me.

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‘Live Like Kings’, again featuring Ella Jean, is about not coveting wealth, but dancing, having fun, and appreciating the beauty around us. ‘Good Morning’ is something of a companion piece to ‘Live Like Kings’, but with a more thrusting ‘rise and shine’ beat to get you going. It’s also pretty funny, as are most of the Prof’s songs.

‘I’m charity-shop fresh, the rest is from car-boots’ asserts the Prof in ‘Jumble Sale’: one of those songs which falls under the banners of ‘sending ourselves up’ and ‘celebrating our own quirks’, much like ‘Cup of Brown Joy’ and ‘I’m British’ did on previous albums. Featuring Brighton-based band The Spoken Herd it’s a jaunty rhythm that extols the virtues of indulging in that peculiar British pastime of trawling through other people’s junk, looking for treasure on a Sunday afternoon.

On the surreal side of things is ‘SQRL’: the sinister tale of a band of secret-agent squirrels, controlled by a Bond-villainesque swan out for revenge on the Professor. How does he extricate himself from this bizarre situation? Well, I can tell you that it involves cake. Disney-esque animals gone slightly wrong is something of a motif in the Professor’s work, and this is a particularly fun one.  And then we have ‘One Too Many’:  a ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ style story (and sound) of the Prof making a duplicate of himself to help with his overwhelming chores that – unsurprisingly – escalates quickly to disaster.

Produced by Tom Caruana (who gets his own tribute song on this album) and featuring DJ Nick Maxwell, with additional vocals from Ella Jean, Spoken Herd, Willie Evans Jr, Jesse Dangerously and Sabira Jade, ‘School of Whimsy’ is a chaotic and colourful blend of sunshine and rodents that may have side effects such as giggling, feeling spiffy, and quitting your day-job to move to Brighton and try your luck at performance art. Recommended to be taken with a large cup of tea.

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