One of the overarching trends of commercial music in the 2010s has been the surge of artists who supposedly throw back to the days when music was “more authentic”, a sort of Proustian rush for artistic credibility amidst a decades-long environment of orchestrated middle-management creations. It has led to the dominance of names such as Adele, Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran, who ostensibly offer as much believability as the heralded stars of bygone eras, but who still operate within the confines of safe, familiar song structures.
Each year, a new name or two is officially anointed into the elite group, by way of a BRITS Critics Choice Award or a BBC Sound of… coronation. This time around, the figure parachuted directly into the echelons is Rag’n’Bone Man, the winner of the former and runner-up in the latter “contests”. Except this time, the silver spoon recipient is a slightly different prospect.
Rory Graham has spent 15 years playing in hip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass crews around London and Brighton, sharing stages with a glittering variety of underground critical darlings. After a series of different monikers, the name he settled on is a reference to the very un-millennial 1970s sitcom Steptoe & Son. Now in his 30s, he may not have struck many as the obvious next move for the mainstream UK music industry.
He did, of course, announce his arrival late last year with the smash hit Human, after which this album is named. A gospel-inflected, Take Me To Church-like rouser, it narrowly missed out on Number 1 in the UK Singles Chart. Strange, then, that it is such a reflexive, contemplative, vulnerable song about Rory’s own existential shortcomings. The song is representative of the push and pull at the heart of this album – the inclination towards pop bombast at war with Graham’s own innate desire to express himself.
At its best moments, the latter wins out. Odetta, for instance, appears to be a genuinely personal tribute to the great African-American folk blues singer of the same name (“We need you more than ever, Odetta/Don’t you know that you saved this young man’s soul”). Perhaps the best song here is Ego, where trumpet and piano sit elegantly alongside hip-hop beats to create a track that is fresh and vibrant. Where many other arrangements here are staid and predictable, it is the ones with an element of organic in-the-room performance that pop.
The primary focus of every track is Graham’s voice, and why wouldn’t it be. The entire premise of recording him as he sings seems frustratingly insufficient, but it’s still the best system we’ve got. His raspy, blues-gospel powerhouse delivery would be compelling whatever you do with it, but rarely does this album push him near his limits. The confessional preacher mode of Human is echoed across several other tracks and likely future singles; Innocent Man, Arrow and Love You Any Less prime among them. He does have one special treat up his sleeve, though, and he saves it for the end. Final track Die Easy is an entirely unaccompanied two-and-a-half minute virtuoso vocal performance, as paralysing as anything by the great delta blues giants of the past. It suggests that the fairly strict confines that constrict the preceding album are a frustration for Graham.
As a breakout pop album, it will be a success. Like any prospective chartbuster, it frontloads its biggest bangers and lets anything more interesting linger in the later stages of the record, when the more passive listeners have tuned out. But those forays are occasional at best, and as an artistic statement this debut album is somewhat limited. Whether Rory Graham will choose to mess with the safe current formula will be interesting to observe – either way, one hopes that his remarkable voice will not go to waste.