I know it’s been everywhere, but this is such a wonderful, summery record (and the video is ace too). Album is out, perhaps an AOTM?
New year, new music. And this is a story of one song, that lead me to an album, and how something that simple can bring such reward. I have been aware of the gloriously named Holy Fuck for a while, from their pleasingly daft videos, their excellent remixes, and the fact that they REALLY sounded like they should be on DFA. Their music – four guys, a bit of a rotating cast of synths, guitars, drums and a bunch of hardware – felt like something I should really be into but never quite did.
Then I heard Luxe on 6Music (of course) and I realised they may have finally got into my head for good. Yes, it has Alexis Taylor of my fanboy crush Hot Chip on it, but it’s much more that it’s an incredible track. Because even his idiosyncratic vocals are only somewhere in the morass, distorted in feedback and muffled in the mid-range as the track first wobbles around an odd sub-bassline and crisp drums, piano stabs, teasing with its destination for way longer than it should be possible to do, before it falls into structure, and then emerges into the sunlight, a percussive cut of modern, shimmering pop music. It’s quite the opener, and that’s possibly the main criticism of the album: where do you go from there?
The answer is, more of the same. And it just about hangs on to get away with it. Because it’s mining some of the best things about that oft-overdone, tired indie-dance hybrid that I’ve heard in a while. And while there’s echoes of all sorts of things in there, it also sounds like their own sound. The title track has shades of LCD – a vein that runs through all their music’s DNA – but there’s a lot of the Reflektor-era James Murphy-reworked Arcade Fire in there too, all scuzzy, submerged vocals, heavy drums, bleepy leads and jangling guitars and ooh-wee-ooh chorus. Endless bucks the trend, much more a guitar track, which to me comes much closer to previous AOTM and personal favourite Hookworms, with its edging into psych-rock and almost operatic stylings.
And what Holy Fuck lack in a singular vocal frontman – think their own Murphy, or Taylor – they make up in clever use of layering, distortion and harmonies. Free Gloss nails this perfectly with its soaring chorus that blends vocals, feedback and guitars, complete with a rocking, solo that makes me want to go and jump around a little club (only to find out their Manchester gig is sold out). There’s elements of the Chemical Brothers too, with Moment’s relentless drum-driven intro, and No Error is a brave sub-3 minute funk-smeared wobbler. What they may lack in perfectly balanced songcraft, they make up for in sheer exuberance and brio – San Sebastian is an almost angry, shouty, 90s throwback that sounds a bit like a discarded Blur b-side from before they went twee and irritating, with nods to Tame Impala, while Ruby doesn’t let up the pace, flowering at the death with a lovely, unexpected melody that fades into the ether as the distorted chords disappear. I also find myself thinking about 2020 uber-release Caribou at more than one juncture. This is a good thing. Yet for all their jangly, energetic energy, there’s more nuance than you’d first think, and a few listens in, the album takes on a much more three-dimensional shape.
In fact, for a band who’ve been around for so long (fourteen years and five albums) I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to properly seek them out. Perhaps this album is a that much of a step up. Because it’s certainly a coherent whole, and refreshing that, at 41 minutes, there’s not much filler in here. Yes, everyone’s buying Caribou, but that’s almost a given it’ll be loved. This is much more of a gamble, and one I think that’s handsomely paid off.
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.