Loyle Carner was a breath of fresh air when he appeared with his debut album Yesterday’s Gone just two years. A likeable, articulate young man who was open about his struggles with ADHD and his mental health, the album garnered both critical adoration and a Mercury Prize nomination, and cemented Carner as a real name to watch.
So, there’s a high level of expectations around Not Waving, But Drowning – and wisely, Carner has chosen to make his second album a natural follow-up to Yesterday’s Gone. While there’s no surprises, it feels more like being welcomed back from an old friend, as each track is linked together by short audio clips of candid conversations between Carner and friends (at one point, there’s a recording of him and his friends watching last year’s World Cup, called It’s Coming Home?). There’s even an appearance by his mum, Jean, just as there was on his debut.
What is missing is an obvious standout track – there’s no naggingly catchy floorfiller like No CD or the attention-grabbing epic Isle Of Arran. Instead, this is more of an album to relax into, as Carner has built most of these songs around the piano, and the mood is very much a low-key one.
So, while Not Waving, But Drowning may not be as immediate as its predecessor, its long term impact may be equally as satisfying. Carner specialises in earnest writing, full of heart – the opening track, Dear Jean, is an open letter to his mother, thanking her for all she’s done for him, before he moves out of the family home and in with his girlfriend. In almost any other hands, this would be almost too corny for words, but Carner is so heartfelt and touching that you can’t help but be moved.
One thing that does reflect Carner’s increased star power since his debut is the cast list gathered on his second album. There are names like Sampha, Tom Misch and Jorja Smith, but they’re all very much in supporting roles. Misch contributes a typically soulful vocal to Angel while Smith is the perfect foil to Carner on the beautiful Loose Ends, one of the most immediate tracks on the album.
Yet, as before, it’s Carner’s lyrics and delivery that are the real stars here. Krispy is a touching and honest account of the difficulties of his friendship with childhood friend and early collaborator Rebel Kleff, while the title track is a sample of poet Stevie Smith, talking about her 1957 poem, and reflecting on the difficulties of young men coping with modern pressure – “sometimes, that brave pretence breaks down, and then, like the poor man in this poem, they are lost”.
Carner’s interest in cooking (he’s opened a cooking school to help young people with ADHD) is addressed in Carluccio, a tribute to chef Antonio Carluccio who died in 2017 and, it transpires, was a big hero of the rapper’s. It’s subjects like this that make Carner one of the most interesting figures at the vanguard of UK hip-hop – not to mention the return of his mother Jean on Dear Ben, which is the response to the opening track: it’s probably not spoiling things too much to reveal that she gives her son’s new relationship her blessing.
Some more cynical types may find this heart-on-sleeve approach too cloying, but the delivery and writing is so honest and heartfelt, it’s impossible not to be charmed. Carner is a genuine talent, and this second album demonstrates just why he’s so highly rated.