October: Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka

Yes, brothers, it’s a bit late, but my god, it’s worth the wait. What can you say about Michael Kiwanuka that’s not already been said? Let’s get the cliches out of the way first: he harks back to the best soul musicians of the 60s and 70s, be it Bill Withers, The Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, with a twinge of the jazz he so adores, but he brings that soul, that classic guitar into the modern age, (with a little help from the talents of Danger Mouse and Inflo) with electronic touches and flourishes. Oh, and I think we forgot that it’s easy listening, middle-class soul that belies a depth and richness, and a self-criticism that shows underneath the wizadry, there’s real doubt, loss and sadness.

Now that’s over with, let’s talk about what goes outside the usual tick-box talking points. Because in Michael Kiwanuka we have an artist that could be set to ascend to the heights of a modern great, at a time when the music he makes feels beautifully out of step with everything else on show: tracks that you expect to crackle with the fizz of vinyl, that don’t adhere to radio-friendly lengths or structures, (yet get picked up by globally renowned TV shows) however simple they may seem at first sight. Yes, you may say he should’ve been born 30 years earlier, but in some ways, that would’ve meant he’d perhaps sunk back into the ‘really good’ with so many legends around him. Truth be told, we’re lucky he’s around now, because that means he stands out, and – for those of us of a certain age – he beautifully espouses the virtues of proper songwriting.

And yet, it could’ve been so different. In many ways Kiwanuka is an anachronism. An immigrant kid, growing up in a white, middle-class suburb in north London, stripped of some of the struggles that peers may have encountered. Growing up immersed in jazz and soul, rather than hip-hop or r’n’b, a skater (but really, not that good), and dropping out of his dream course at the Royal Academy to write some songs, play them in a pub, and see where it went, assuming it’d be respected session musician, and never Glastonbury headliner, and singer-songwriter that spent years both convinced his own voice wasn’t up to the mark, then when fame finally hit, wracked with self-doubt, a self-labelled impostor that walked out of sessions with Kanye and struggled singing songs about the bleak side of love as he was getting married himself.

But to stick with Kiwanuka is an experience that rewards you, continually. Even the breakout Home Again, and the BBC Sound of 2012 – which seems so incredibly long ago – didn’t seem to quite bring him the expected success he’d been talked up for. It wasn’t until Love And Hate, four years later, that the it felt like the world caught up. It debuted at No.1 in the UK, and was an album that improved with every listen, his voice just drifting into gravelly, lovelorn ennui, cloaked in sadness. It was hard enough to listen to sometimes in good days, let alone when you’d gone through a break-up, or suffered loss. Every track dripped with sadness, with subtle, careworn character that settled like winter snow. And when he found his voice as a black man in the modern world, it gave us musical glory.

So where do you go from here? Radical reinvention? Pastiche? In this case, a bit of that, but mostly taking what made you so loved, and adding layers. But as with his own character, it’s not a brash statement, but something enveloped in a sound so pure, rich and powerful, that it reveals itself slowly. And shows that along with musical growth, Kiwanuka is also starting to feel more at home with himself. The first single, You Ain’t The Problem, finds him coming to the realisation that, whatever tribulations and doubt there is, it’s not himself that’s at the centre of it. Hero is self-questioning, with a video that puts his own contradictions at its heart, but doesn’t put the blame at his own door, and throughout the album, there are songs whose first impact is ‘that’s nice’, but as you delve deeper and let the music wash over you, and the lyrics sink in, you get to enjoy the slow-burning, blossoming joy as the album slowly shifts under your feet, and you just want to listen again, and again, and again.

Not everything, it seems has to be accessible and obvious from the off, and so this gentle but powerful anachronism, at odds with a fast-paced, condensed, over-saturated world, is everything it should be: a current classic, a future classic, and one of the albums of the year. Amen, Michael.

8 comments

  1. nolankane706

    I recently listened to an interview with Michael Kiwanuka and he talked about how he linked up with Danger Mouse. I think we can all agree his debut was a bit underwhelming, and up until their collaboration he was struggling to get backing from his label to release any further music. Essentially his second album delivered on what everyone one day expected from him and more. This new album is very much a continuation of that album.

    There is a strong argument that this album is almost as much about the production as the song writing as it pushes the winning formula and pastes together the songs through pleasing interludes. I can understand how many reviews have praised this album as sonically it’s amazing.

    Very much agreeing with Guy’s write up this album does offer allot and I seem to discover more with each listen. As I write this I think my stand out track is Piano Joint, followed by Final Days.

    I do miss some of the more 70’s soul influenced songs that were on his last album. I also wonder how strong the album would be without the magic of Danger Mouse?

  2. David Allison

    Firsty, great write-up, Brother Guy. You really capture a lot about the man himself and what led up to this album.

    Secondly, well….this is quite the listen, huh? Still rinsing the hell out of it a couple of weeks in. I don’t know if it’s possible to talk about quite how good some things are initially, that takes time, and the question that we ask a lot on this blog – will I still listen to this in 3 years time – well, that’s often very hard to answer. Not with this. I will be listening to this in 3 years time. And 5. And 10. I’m pretty certain of that.

    I am an absolutely huge fan of that very conscious, spacious late 60s/early 70s soul – Marvin Gaye in his What’s Going On era, Curtis Mayfield, Minnie Ripperton (and Rotary Connection) – and obviously, Stevie. I honestly can’t get enough of the stuff. It manages to both muscular and delicate, and it’s not afraid to be gentle and beautiful as well as funky and groovy. It felt like an era when minds were expanding and the idea of what ‘soul’ meant was being pushed all the time.

    To say Kiwanuka (the album as well as the man) is influenced by that era is the understatement of the century. Just listen to the opening of Living In Denial. That spacious, spare sound, with reverbed, low in the mix, drums, walking bass that lives all on his own, the psych-ish picked guitar – and then that choir of backing singers – it’s pure Curtis and Minnie.

    Know what I bloody love about the way he writes songs – he often switches in the same song between a sad yearning/despair and then to hope. He does it on Final Days (minor verse, major chorus), Piano Joint (totally a minor song, but with touches of uplifting major chords even within a minor chorus), and the epic Hard To Say Goodbye switches through at least 5 different moods. So hard to pull off well. What a songwriter he’s become.

    Ah, so the knotty question. This could have been made at any time in the last 40 years. Does that matter? Does it make it a ‘heritage’ album. Hell, I don’t know. Firstly, the songs are so good – what a collection of tunes it is – that perhaps that ceases to matter. Secondly, in the age of everything sounding like everything else, then does it even matter as a question? Intent is so important. You can tell if an artist is trying to just repackage an old sound in a cynical attempt to sell, or because they lack originality. This feels like Kiwanuka is digging into something deep inside him and using the music that speaks to him most.

    Maybe that’s what the album’s real triumph is – that this is an artist who’s learned to talk about the things that really matter to him. That was what was so absent on that first album. This feels like a personal statement, and those are rare enough in music in any era.

    Finally, not sure I agree with Brother Nolan on Danger Mouse. I think his best work often lets the artist breathe. It does give it a nice sheen that makes it feel less heritage and more contemporary. But this is very light touch production, letting the songs do their work. It’s clearly been a fruitful collaboration, but I’m not sure that Kiwanuka would have failed without Danger Mouse’s input. The songs are just too good.

    Album of the year? Well, we get to answer that next month!

  3. misterstory

    Nice write up as always Brother Guy. Thanks for the CD and thanks for getting signed CDs. I’ve not opened mine and probably won’t! On to the album then. This is just a little thing but I love the art-work. That in itself tells a lot of what is to come and sets the scene nicely.

    I am always unsure of how my listening experience is impacted by reviews. I (unfortunately) saw loads of the reviews before I heard a single track. My expectations were set very high. However how I feel when I listen is a real mix of things. On paper this ticks all of my late 60s/early 70’s boxes, I also love Danger Mouse’s work with pretty much everyone he’s worked with. I should love this. On first listen I think I did. I wasn’t blown away but I thought this would make a massive impact on successive listens….. and then it didn’t. I found myself feeling pretty ambivalent to it. It sounded lovely. When the lyrics captured me I felt them but to often the tracks drifted over me. Not in a bad way. As Nolan says sonically its amazing. But emotionally I’ve not yet connected with it. I’ve listened to it loads. I mean loads. It’s had plenty of opportunity. Perhaps I’ve not listened it to it attentively enough. Your write-ups are enough to make me think I should try harder. I have lots of travel coming up and will dedicate this to Mr. K. I promise.

    At present, I think I am with Nolan in that I am not sure what this would be like without Danger Mouse.

    Also I am missing a track that has really burrowed into my soul like Black Man in a White Man’s World did.

    It’s not you (you ain’t the problem) … it’s me … I think.

  4. David Allison

    Interesting response, Joey. Connecting with an album is ultimately quite a person thing, so who knows why it works for one person and not another. I am surprised you’re struggling with it, though, and surely You Ain’t The Problem is at least as big a monster as Black Man in A White Man’s World was.

    I would say that I loved it straight away, and then I got worried I was going to get bored of it – and then something happened, and the quieter and/or more complex parts of the album started burrowing their way into me, and it was only at that point that I thought – this has really got me. So perhaps that might happen in time? Or it’s just one of those things that isn’t quite doing it for you.

    I do think reading too many massively amazing reviews can be a problem too. Going in with such high expectations is always tough. So maybe it was never going to live up to that?

  5. whyohwhyohwhy

    I keep trying to dedicate some time to longer replies but I’m in tonight on my tod so…

    I’ll say this though, this gets better with each listen. It feels like a classic already, and yes that’s in no small part to the production. But also, is that a problem? We all know producers are an influence on music, and the best forge great partnerships with musicians. Eno, Godrich, Quincy, Visconti… We could write a piece on this alone. But if Kiwanuka is a great soul singer on his own but an incredible artist with Dangermouse then that’s fine. You can hear their “sounds”, the reverb, the almost ‘watery’ guitar. The raw drums… and I love it. So it works for me.

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