Shrugged shoulders and cries of “Huh?” normally greet the BBC’s Sound Of… poll whenever it announces its annual shortlist. Despite being culled from the opinions of music pundits, it’s always seemed to be a wonky musical barometer more skewed to flashes-in-the-pan or “what will be famous” rather than acts which deserve to be played over and over again. When Michael Kiwanuka was announced as the winner for 2012 the shrugs were replaced by applause and relief – the critics appeared to have backed a dead cert. This debut album fully vindicates the choice and goes a long way to laying the ghosts of dodgy former winners to rest.
Kiwanuka’s brand of folk infused soul might easily have won him a Sound Of 1972 award; this album feels more suited to an 8 track cartridge rather than a 40,000 track iPod. After what feels like a lengthy wait, it’s probably no coincidence that the disc hits the shelves in the same week that a Bill Withers retrospective rides high in the TV schedules – there’s clearly an appetite for good ’70s style soul. However, there’s something alchemical running through the disc that elevates it above simple nostalgic retro.
Opening track Tell Me A Tale, first glimpsed last year, is a superb calling card rich with willowy flutes and strings. More importantly you’re immediately aware of Kiwanuka’s brilliant vocals. Comparisons have been made to the likes of Terry Callier and Otis Redding but there’s something else brought to the table; the vocals are warm, joyous and honeyed and feels like his singing comes pre-loaded with vinyl style crackles. This is something that makes you sit still, and above all makes you feel happy. Kiwanuka’s still a twentysomething spring chicken, but the vocals sound like those of a man twice that age – a man who’s learnt from experience and, just possibly, sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads.
The album seamlessly shifts around from folk to soul to gospel-style joy and exaltation. Bones has strains of old-time jazz resplendent with backing vocals that sound like they’ve been lifted verbatim from an Elvis Presley cut. But it’s the singles that are the stars. Both Movin’ On and the title track have enjoyed extensive airplay and they well represent Kiwanuka’s strengths. These are good, simple and effective pieces of songwriting with rich vocals. Although these tracks are less than a year old, part of their brilliance is that they feels strangely familiar, as if an avid crate digger has rediscovered a piece of classic, long forgotten vinyl.
This album deserves all the success it will undoubtedly attain, and there’s enough here with which to tackle any potential backlash or the over-exposure that can sometimes accompany ‘success’. Kiwanuka isn’t one to rest on his laurels – since recording Home Again he’s covered Leonard Cohen and recorded a B-side with Dan Auerbach of the ubiquitous Black Keys. There’s obviously more to come, but this eagerly awaited debut disc doesn’t disappoint. We’re told this year will see record temperatures, but it will be difficult to find anything warmer than coming home to this album.