I was immediately intrigued when I first heard Michael Kiwanuka. That feeling of intrigue later changed to one of being deeply impressed when I saw him live for the first time at Splendour in the Grass in the winter of 2012. There’s a lot to like about the guy – he writes his own sad songs and plays the guitar without making such a tragic figure out of himself – like Justin Vernon for example. He has a soothing singing voice, distinctly British but also inflected by his Ugandan heritage. Lastly, despite all the critical praise and overhype of being slated as ‘the next Bob Dylan’, he seems like a pretty humble guy not interested in too much other than conveying a message that is uniquely his own (more of a next Bill Withers if we’re talking comparisons).
You can understand then, why I was so surprised when I heard the first song from his sophomore effort, Love & Hate. Cold Little Heart is a staggering ten minute track, the first five minutes of which are instrumental. A big statement from the humble guy, although perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. With a title like ‘Love & Hate’ this is clearly going to be a more impassioned, polarising and I think the key word is ‘stately’ effort than the aptly titled and homely ‘Home Again’. Anyway, Kiwanuka has clearly been listening to some Pink Floyd lately because the first four minutes of Cold Little Heart reminds me of none other than Shine on You Crazy Diamond, starting from the atmospheric synth and strings background and the Gilmourish lead-guitar playing right down to the chord changes and drum rolls. The choral arrangement also brings The Great Gig in The Sky to mind although that might be the problem with listening to too much music – everything sounds like something else. The song then morphs around the five-minute mark into the more familiar folk/soul sound for those who did have the pleasure to hear Home Again. Most importantly though, Kiwanuka retains his strong sense of melody and song structure and the song is quite enjoyable.
The listener is then plunged into the Delta as Kiwanuka sings a folk/blues melody accompanied only by handclaps. This is the intro to ‘Black Man in a White World’, a song that luckily lives up to its audacious title. Kiwanuka is backed up by a chorus that repeats the title ad infinitum until it’s hammered into your head while the band is appropriately interjected by brass and strings. This is followed by the heartbreaking melody of ‘Falling’ which features what sounds like an old and/or broken piano. The chorus is simple yet effective and the guitar break really adds to the song. ‘Place I Belong’ is an attempt at a slow funk number but unfortunately this is the first misfire on the record. Kiwanuka simply doesn’t have the spirit or the right kind of energy to pull this style off convincingly. It’s not a badly written song or unlistenable for any reason, it just lacks the necessary ‘spark’ oft spoken of in artistic circles. It’s telling that the most poignant part of the song is the soft interludes where the vocals are accompanied by just piano and strings.
Then comes the centrepiece of the album, the title track ‘Love & Hate’ and Kiwanuka totally delivers with a classy vocal melody over a heavily chorused acoustic guitar part and a backing vocal motif with echoes of Marvin Gaye. The track slowly builds up in intensity and changes to double time halfway through and at the five minute mark a fuzzy but fitting guitar solo leads the band to a crescendo and then slowly brings it all back down, the song ending the same way it started with the acoustic strumming and the repeating vocal motif.
The rest of the album onward doesn’t really manage to live up the heights of the title track (although the closing ‘The Final Frame’ is another highlight). ‘One More Night’ and ‘I’ll Never Love’ are both shortish throwaways, the first being driven by drums and organ and with extra reverb on the vocals and the second not presenting anything I can really remember although both are totally inoffensive and make for pleasant listening. Slightly better is the melody of ‘Rule the World’ which follows the formula used on the title tracked except this one starts out with a heavily phased acoustic track and ends in a swirling concoction of sound. More questionable though is the decision to repeat the same trick on ‘Father’s Child’ which goes on for seven minutes and doesn’t really exhibit anything different. Put it down to bad track ordering perhaps.
All said and done, ‘Love & Hate’ doesn’t quite live up to ‘Home Again’ (one thing I haven’t mentioned is the presence of strings throughout the album which gets frustrating after a time as they do little of any significance and might be what brings the album down a couple of notches). However, few could crucify Michael Kiwanuka for falling for the oldest trap in the music making business and making a second album (only slightly) weaker than a stellar debut – for following the rule rather than being the exception (e.g. James Blake, who topped his debut with 2013’s Overgrown). What is positive to see is that Kiwanuka has been willing to take some big steps and bold moves in regards to his overall sound and image and hasn’t remade his first record. A good sign for one of the major British talents of the decade so far and a very solid if not outstanding effort. I look forward to the next one.