If you could choose a musical figure to represent Britain today, who would it be?
The opening and closing ceremonies from London 2012 gave us a clue about what a people’s choice might be, with prominent roles for David Bowie, Underworld and, er, Mr Bean. No doubt more might go for Paul McCartney, Damon Albarn, or The Kinks maybe. Yet it is doubtful any of these identify with the issues Britain faces right now more pertinently or emotionally than Roots Manuva.
The man known to his mother as Rodney Smith has done his time in the North (Sheffield) and South (Stockwell), giving him geographical credence. In that time he has made five albums, at least three of which are very fine indeed. But concern was growing that he might have peaked creatively. Bleeds refutes that notion emphatically, within a minute of the start.
Hard Bastards is a brave track with which to open, but Roots Manuva is not one to fanny about, and wastes no time getting to the point in his appraisal of society today. “Granddad never worked, daddy never worked, three generations don’t give a shit about work”, he rails. Having done this we stay firmly in the darkness of the same minor key for the striking sonorities of Crying, a post-dubstep number where a baby in slight distress becomes part of the percussion, a darkly rendered urban picture. This is the first song to feature the new production team headed by Switch, who make a significant contribution to this album.
Fans of Manuva will know that his best work combines this darker approach with wry humour and moments of pure sunlight, where the rapper’s smiling features almost appear in the room with you. Don’t Breathe Out illustrates this, set against a breezy loop of strings, and although Sylas’ vocals are incredibly similar in timbre to Bon Iver’s Justin Martin, they leave an equally strong emotional footprint.
There are newer sounds too. Cargo is thoroughly intriguing, its opening piano arpeggios sounding like a snippet from an alt-J song, alarmingly put in perspective by Manuva’s husky dark whisper. Facety 2:11 is a brilliant, jumpy collaboration with Four Tet that sounds like nothing else around with its word play.
Thankfully even the darkest moments are on occasion laced with comedy, and the manipulated vocal of Me Up! has a twisted but pretty funny outlook, as does the hollow ring of Stepping Hard, Manuva clearly struggling with life but still looking upwards and outwards (“stand back and await the abundance come”). Both tracks demonstrate what a versatile instrument he has at his disposal.
The centre of the record, emotionally and musically, is Know Your Face, violas and cellos back in lush effect to power a contemplation of the world as we see it today, before a monster beat – the biggest on the album – kicks these emphatically to the wall. It would be a devastating comedown at the end were it not for the consoling Fighting For, wrapping its arm around the listener with a little of the gospel that has been simmering beneath the surface.
In the press release for Bleeds, Smith says he called the album so because he is ready to bleed for his art. There is little doubt he has done that here, and that he holds this nation close to his heart – a heart so firmly on his sleeve we can see it there, beating. It’s what makes him so important to British music today.