Review | Michael Kiwanuka - KIWANUKA
Michael Kiwanuka’s third studio record KIWANUKA is a concept album that carries his powerful voice to sometimes suffocating heights.
It has been seven years since the release of Michael Kiwanuka’s delicate and raw folk-soul debut Home Again. With its clean sound and yearning vocals that album won the prestigious Mercury Prize and brought the attention of collaborators and producers. Since then his sound has become more complex. The 2016 sophomore Love & Hate layered the characteristic vocals with more thumping and often icy sounds. This shift was enabled by improved resources and the talents of producers Danger Mouse and Inflo.
Kiwanuka marks the third act in this story. His sonic palette has continued to grow, with his aching vocals swirling into a heady mixture of shuffling drums, piano crescendos, discordant vocal samples and choral arrangements. The throbbing soundscape can sometimes feel muffled or overwhelming - happily Danger Mouse and co. pleasingly puncture the sonic fog with timely and blistering guitar riffs. The result is a combination of styles and genres, from vintage soul to alt-rock. It is this flexibility which keeps the sometimes mellow album vividly alive.
In recent interviews, a characteristically open Kiwanuka has described his journey towards self-acceptance. The album could be described as a celebration and expression of his self - he neatly and triumphantly signals this with the title. The rollicking opener ‘You Ain’t the Problem’, an instant classic, also champions self-sufficiency and confidence: ‘I hope to be who I believe in’.
‘Hard to Say Goodbye’ showcases all that is best about this excellent album. After a few strains of beautiful strings and harps come marching drums, classic twanging guitars and then an angelic choir. Suddenly this wall of sound fades, and we are left with birdsong, a strumming acoustic guitar and Kiwanuka’s timeless voice. It is precisely these shifts, contrasts and combinations which make me want to listen again and again. Though newly armed with a full and expensive musical tool-kit Kiwanuka knows when to put it down and sing.
While the general idea of self-acceptance has filled press interviews around the album, the lyrical content is far from homogenous or straightforward. For one thing, the sprawling fourteen track record includes two enjoyably enigmatic interludes. There are certainly other themes in the mix as well, notably race and politics. ‘Final Days’ seems to be a sweet and poignant reflection on that lethargy which can be induced by climate change:
‘Final days on the planet
Here we are, on the ground,
Every day, automatic
Here we are goin’ round and round and round’
In more general terms though, his lyrics cannot be pinned down. Listening through the album I was never quite sure if Kiwanuka was talking about love, God, art or depression. ‘Piano Joint’ contains some especially vague and beautiful lines:
“All I want is to talk to you,
Turn me onto something true,
I can’t be with another”
While Kiwanuka’s narrative ambiguity can sometimes be frustrating, it is effective. In ‘You Ain’t The Problem’, the first and second person are used interchangeably - this means that listeners can apply his message to their own lives. Kiwanuka allows for both light and shade. Whereas Kanye has recently been in the positivist world of modern gospel on the triumphalist ‘Jesus is King’, Kiwanuka’s ‘Solid Ground’ manages to celebrate his God whilst complaining that ‘Life can be so unkind’.
Anything which puts Michael Kiwanuka’s voice in our ears is surely a thing to celebrate. In this album, we have an artist who is increasingly willing to add layers to his music and who wants to express parts of his identity. While the result can sometimes be suffocating or frustrating, it combines an exciting palette with moments of great emotion.
Best Song: Hard To Say Goodbye
Worst Song: I’ve Been Dazed