Thursday, July 21, 2016

album review: 'love & hate' by michael kiwanuka

So there's a term that's become popular in the online music critic scene, particularly on YouTube. Coined by one Todd Nathanson, it's one that's attracted a fair amount of attention, expansion, and detractors, one that I've even coined myself: the 'white guy with acoustic guitar' genre. It's a bit of a nebulous term - because obviously not all white guys with acoustic guitars make bad music, look at Mark Kozalek or James McMurtry - but it typically is used to describe a certain sort of gutless, edgeless, artless pretension that's perfect for scoring your average listless summer barbecue that wouldn't dare to threaten or challenge anybody. And given that most of this music tends to make my skin crawl, I have no problem whatsoever disparaging this type of music, not just for the often below-average songwriting and guitarwork, but more for the attitudes beneath the music - I elevate artists like Kozalek and McMurtry above this term because they're trying to make artistic statements, whereas stereotypical white guys with acoustic guitars make music in order to pick up chicks or put up a forefront of depth that isn't there.

But I'll also admit it's a narrow term, and it's by no means limited to white guys, so what about black guys with acoustic guitars? Well, you're going to find far fewer examples in this subgenre, but there are a few - Darius Rucker, former frontman of Hootie & The Blowfish immediately springs to mind, and it's definitely a fair comparison. But when you consider Michael Kiwanuka, I would definitely hesitate to assign that label, mostly because he seems to play in an entirely different ballpark, even if on the surface some people might be inclined to use the label. For those who don't know, Kiwanuka is a British singer-songwriter who got his start as a session player before his breakthrough in 2012 with his debut album Home Again, which definitely had its warm folk touches and a fair amount of acoustic guitar, but tended to play more towards old school soul touches with the organ and slightly rougher production. But at the same time, as much as I liked his delivery the writing wasn't always stellar - and to be fair, good soul doesn't always need brilliant lyrics, but it feel thin at points, enough that I could see why people at first glance might assign that the label, or at least consider him a bit of a throwback. But he didn't seem willing to accept that, so recruiting Danger Mouse and fellow UK producer Inflo, he dropped his sophomore album Love & Hate that on the surface looked to be getting more conscious and develop more lyrical bite. So after I caught some strong singles, I figured I dig into this: was it worth it?

Well, on some level it was definitely worth the many listens I gave it - but then again, the more I dug into this record, the more I found myself frustrated that I didn't like it more. For sure it's an improvement over Home Again, but it didn't quite tidy up enough of the areas that needed attention. As a soul record it definitely takes more chances and plays in darker territory, but I'm not always certain that it flatters Kiwanuka's strengths when that happens. Again, for sure a very good record, but I'm not sure this is a great one or worth the insane amount of critical acclaim it's received.

So to find out why, let's start with Kiwanuka himself, and yeah, a significant portion of this record's appeal lies in him as a performer, with the sort of liquid smooth yet potent organic performance that draws a lot of comparisons back to Bill Withers. And for me... well, it's an interesting case, because while you could draw the paralllels with Bill Withers or Billy Paul, Kiwanuka might be able to match their volume but I don't get that rougher, raw edge that I found so compelling in their vocals. And sure, you could argue that's the point, this record is a more reserved and vulnerable affair and isn't looking for heavy fire and brimstone... but I'm not sure that's reflected by all of the instrumentation, production, and especially the backing vocals, which seem to be crying out for a more fiery, explosive delivery that doesn't really materialize. I mean, one of the most recognizable elements of this record is Kiwanuka's fuzzed-out guitar line that sizzles through tracks starting with 'Cold Little Heart' and then showing up on 'Place I Belong', the title track, 'I'll Never Love', and the closer that's dominated by it 'The Final Frame'. Hell, you even get a fuzz of the sax line on 'One More Night' - and make no mistake, I'm a huge fan of it in terms of adding some bite and distinctive character to the album, but I wish Kiwanuka could support it more in his delivery.

Granted, it's not all his fault, mostly because the production choices feel all over the place too - and yes, here's where we're going to have to talk about Brian Burton aka Danger Mouse yet again. Now let me stress I prefer his work here to when he was working with the Red Hot Chili Peppers earlier this year, where his muted tones were a poor fit for that band's loose fire and energy. Kiwanuka plays to much of it a lot better, especially the sumptuous strings sections that ebb in and out beautifully. And none of it feels stiff or mechanical - there were drum machines on 'I'll Never Love' and 'One More Night' and you can barely tell, which allows the organic textures in the acoustic guitar, real handclaps, and backing vocals really burnish the atmosphere. It's probably the biggest reason I don't find 'Cold Little Heart' overly indulgent for effectively starting with five minutes of instrumental that they later repeat with vocals for the second half of the song - it's almost so gorgeous you don't care! And when this record plays more to this bombast it excels: the smoky electric guitar and organ complete with key change on 'Falling', the huge swell of strings and organ on the solo of the title track even if the backing vocals did grow a bit stale by the end, and the low key growth and razor tight balance between frustrated anger and despondency on 'Black Man In A White World'. And yet since it's a Burton-produced record, we also get the tonal and production choices that don't nearly work as well, like on the compression piled over 'Rule The World' until the song could open up more, or the backing gloss the bridge of 'I'll Never Love', or the incredibly weedy guitar line on 'Father's Child'. And that doesn't even touch on the one element of the composition that really irked me: this record feels underwritten and stretched, especially in its length. Don't get me wrong, I dug the guitar solos that added some more meat to songs like 'The Final Frame', but tracks like 'Father's Child' feel far too long for the thin instrumental and lyrical ideas we get, and this record could have definitely benefited from more of the tightness and groove that we got on 'One More Night' or 'Black Man In A White World'.

But by now you've probably taken note of that song title and want me to talk about lyrics and themes - and like with Kiwanuka's last release, while I do think these songs tend to be a tad underwritten, it's more a factor because they're also a little abstract, or make the framing a little more complicated. The one consistent mood is depression, never feeling good enough and always sliding towards failure, even when others might believe in you. And indeed, if you give these lyrics to some emo bands they could definitely fit, and I'm not going to lie and say that the self-pity of 'Cold Little Heart' or 'Place I Belong' treads right up to the line for me. 'I'll Never Love' goes right over it and despite being one of the most succinct songs on this record is one of the weakest cuts here, mostly because it plays more of the tortured artist card to love them and leave them, and it doesn't connect at all for me. I got a lot more out of tracks like 'Black Man In A White World', where he's so far past anger and grief that he's hit a sort of numbness in isolation, or the failed relationship of 'Falling' that the girl tries to reignite and Kiwanuka seems powerless to stop her - no, it's not better than when Marianas Trench did it with 'Wildfire', but very few songs are! To me, the midsection of this record where he confronts his own isolationist depression on 'Place I Belong', followed by the drive to come back from it on the title track and 'One More Night' is easily the strongest section of this record for me. Hell, 'Rule The World' has the same sort of aspirations, all the while acknowledging that while he might need help to get there, he'd have to rise up and take it. And maybe that's why the ending of the record hits a weird note for me - I appreciate the apology and desire to make things better with his girl, but the way it positions it all as inevitability, turning what was framed on 'Falling' as tragic, just doesn't quite sit well, especially when you have lines like 'It's too late to run away' - uh, what?

But at the end... this is a really hard record to evaluate, because it really does do a lot right and is a real improvement. The thematic core is richer, the instrumentation has more bite... but at the same time, it's flabbier. This record could have cut more and stood out as one of the best of the year - as it is, while there are some truly great songs on this record, for me it's an extremely strong 7/10. And yes, I understand that'll be controversial and really, I was back and forth on this record all day, but let me stress that I'm recommending it. Michael Kiwanuka improved considerably with this album, and I honestly think that he's on the path to making something truly special, and if you're more of a fan of oldschool soul, you're going to love this record, so definitely check it out.

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