If you were nominated for a Mercury Music Prize for your last album but one, where do you go next? For multi-instrumentalist Nitin Sawhney, the theory seems to be to evolve rather than revolutionise your sound. Human is the product of this approach – it contains enough surprises to mark it out from his last records, but is familiar enough to stand as a record only Sawhney could have made.
Once again there’s a raft of collaborators, including an eclectic assortment of vocalists. Some are familiar – Tina Grace returns with her sensual tones on Say Hello and Fragile Wind, and Natacha Atlas lends Arabesque backing to (appropriately enough) Eastern Eyes. Elsewhere, new devotees Jacob Golden, Zubin Varla and Aqualung bring distinct ingredients to the Sawhney mix. Aqualung’s fragile and honest vocals on Falling offset the complex beat-driven production well.
The River stands as an excellent introduction to what this most talented musician is about – beginning with Indian instrumentals, moving through western guitar sounds before settling on the kind of R&B vibe that would put All Saints to shame, it is ambitious and well realised.
Kevin Mark Trail‘s rock-solid lead vocals on Eastern Eyes (with Atlas backing him) make for a song of familiar lyrical themes – “from the ocean to the sand” reminds of early Sawhney songs which seemed to romanticise nature.
Sawhney’s only real problem comes from merely tinkering with the sound that achieved notoriety for him in the past rather than taking bolder steps. The BBC News archives are again raided for samples – including one about Enoch Powell – to illustrate his recurring theme of unease about our political masters and his anger at the continuing racism he sees around him. Yet in the sleevenotes he claims not to be political but merely a confused man – before launching into a tirade about a lawyer being arrested for wearing a “Give Peace A Chance” t-shirt. Having and eating the same cake is proved conclusively to be an unfeasible exercise here, even in this virtuoso’s hands. And with a sleeve design that apes that of Beyond Skin, it’s almost like he hasn’t progressed in five years.
Good though the music is, it too suffers from sounding too similar to material from previous albums, especially Beyond Skin. The ambition (and relative bombast) of Prophesy isn’t readily apparent on this record – it’s rather more personal than that. In places, especially when Grace’s heart-rendingly fragile vocals turn things delicate, it feels like a late night journey into the consciousness, yet one that isn’t wildly different from that which went before. Only the inclusion of Golden and Aqualung take us into new territory.
It’s unfortunate that Sawhney set the target so high with his previous records, for sooner or later he was bound to reach a haitus. Human seems to be it – though it’s by no means a bad album. It just leaves the listener hoping that one of the few musicians with something inspirational to say doesn’t become pigeonholed. For an introduction to Sawhney’s music, this album is as just as good as any of his previous albums – ie. very good indeed – but it’s not an album that will win him originality prizes.