By the time Michael Kiwanuka released his debut LP in 2012 there was already quite the buzz around his particular blend of soul. His 2011 EP Tell Me a Tale (Isle of White Sessions) had garnered excited comparisons to Otis Reading, Curtis Mayfield and Bill Withers. And yet when first long player did arrive Home Again fell somewhat short of the promise of the three songs on the EP. He seemed to shirk the energy and excitement that those tracks suggested in favour of safer and more temperate, albeit solid, singer/songwriter vignettes. Equally, having won the BBC Sound of 2012 poll Kiwanuka appeared to shy away from the exposure he could have capitalised on. Consciously or unconsciously he didn’t run with it.
Roll forward to 2016 and Kiwanuka is meeting that early promise with graceful poise. He sets out his stall on the first track, the epic Cold Little Heart. Tentative worried strings usher in choral female voices. The bravery of the record is played out in those first moments that refuse to pander to instant gratification, but choose instead to opt for the long game. It unfolds into a lush soundscape of added percussion and warm guitar licks, all the while braced with those wha-wha voices. The ever so slightly Pink Floyd-y build then breaks and at over five minutes that we finally hear Kiwanuka’s buttery yet cracked vocal self flagellate over the futility of a broken relationship.
It’s a breathtaking opener, and it’s credit to Kiwanuka that the rest of the album doesn’t get lost in its shadow. Much like the opposing forces suggested by the record’s title the songs on the album flit back and forth between personal and societal struggles. The lead single Black Man in a White World, both musically and lyrically, doffs it’s cap to past masters whilst also being a record of it’s own time. Like much of the album it’s a song that acknowledges the complicated and not easily solvable nature of society’s problems. Kiwanuka builds an uneasy tension by laying out inherent contradictions like, “I’m in love but I’m still sad/I’ve found peace but I’m not glad.” Thematically, his penchant for old soul sounds is justified through broaching problems the artists of the past dealt with that are, sadly, the same ones he faces today.
As an album that is both outward an inward looking the balance of the two is well measured. I’ll Never Love holds the most beguiling melody. The full and lush arrangements, present on many of the other tracks, are stripped down to a bare minimum for a meditation on love as an elusive and ungraspable notion. Kiwanuka laments his inability to master it singing, “I’ll never hold somebody/I’ll never hold somebody for very long” in quietly aching fashion.
The moment he combines his two main themes on the title track he brings together both his personal and political woes. Again, although the backing vocals and subtle string work are reintroduced on this track, it it nevertheless a great example of less is more. The arrangement gracefully reinforces the sentiment of the song that wonders “Love and hate/how much are we supposed to tolerate?”, but defiantly insists, “You can’t break me down/you can’t take me down.”
There’s no doubt his vision loses a little momentum towards the end f the record, Father’s Child for instance just isn’t one of the stronger tunes. However, it feels like work that aims for the dizzy heights of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, and while it may not reach that record’s visionary status its ambitions are commendable. Kiwanuka has made a fine record that will likely be enjoyed by those who currently find satisfaction in artists like Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington. As Washington said of himself recently, “I’m a student of the past and a participant in the present.” It’s an idea that could easily be applied to Michael Kiwanuka, who has revealed his vulnerabilities in beautifully confident fashion.