Saturday, March 4, 2017

album review: 'human' by rag'n'bone man

Of all of the acts that I've covered on this show, especially in recent months courtesy of Patreon, this is arguably one that I have been looking forward to the least.

I know, harsh allegations, especially for an act who is currently racking up hits in the UK, but indeed, that's part of the issue. Unlike most people, I knew about Rag'N'Bone Man, real name Rory Graham, back a few years ago, and I was not surprised to see a significant push behind him, especially in the wake of rougher artists like Hozier blazing the trail for bluesier acts having success. Hell, in an episode of Billboard BREAKDOWN I used every possible excuse to avoid talking about Rag'N'Bone Man, even calling him a Hozier rip-off... which got me a fair amount of flak from people who told me that he actually predates Hozier and he had been pushing out EPs since the early 2010s. Believe it or not, I actually did know this, mostly through his affiliation with a few smaller British hip-hop acts. But that indeed might have been part of the problem for me - Hozier trended towards blues rock and gospel, rougher genres that demanded grit and a darker brand of howling soul that I really came to love. And while Rag'N'Bone Man was capable of that sort of sound, most of his early EPs played closer to neo-soul and pushed him into his smoother upper register and featured hip-hop guest verses, he was going in a different direction.

And then Hozier's self-titled debut sold over a million copies worldwide for Island and you can tell that the major labels wanted to have at least somebody who could compete in the same territory. Atlantic had Ed Sheeran who was even bigger, Interscope had Imagine Dragons - although  Smoke + Mirrors wouldn't help  - Republic snatched up James Bay who would go on to make 'Let It Go' an adult alternative hit, and Columbia... see, that's the thing, they were distributors for Hozier, they didn't need another act to play in this lane while Hozier worked on his sophomore project unless they were looking for R&B/neo-soul crossover... which I doubted. And yet here we are with Rag'n'Bone Man, for whose breakout single 'Human' you can largely thank Hozier for popularizing that style, especially in the UK. But I do like Hozier, and even though I didn't really care for 'Human', maybe Rag'n'Bone Man might be able to recapture some of that magic on his full-length debut?

Okay, we might as well get this over with: I didn't care for Human, the album and the song - and unfortunately, it's for many of the same reasons I didn't like the lead-off single. I'm not going to deny that Rory Graham is a ridiculously talented and expressive singer, but his debut record has the sterile feel of being micromanaged a major label looking to cash in on a sound by watering it down rather than refining it, from the instrumentation and production to the writing. It's the sanitized, accessible version of modern blues and soul - and no matter how much I might find Rag'N'Bone Man an impressive presence, that's not what I want to hear when I listen to soul or blues, damn it!

But before I really dig into my issues with this record, I want to highlight the unequivocal positive: Rory Graham himself. I've made the Hozier comparison plenty of times - and spoiler alert, the parallels of what goes right and wrong here are so stark it's going to be impossible to avoid - but Graham is arguably an even stronger and more versatile vocalist, able to jump from full-throated howls to smoother, John Legend or Nate Dogg-esque crooning to a pretty decent falsetto to even a rapped verse on 'Ego' that reflects a hint of unique personality that the label didn't manage to sand-blast away. And make no mistake, you can tell his producers know that Graham is the biggest asset they have, so they give him the center stage and as many overdubs and theatrical swell as he wants, lending this record an elegance and swell that is palpable... but I'm not sure this is production that flatters him. His sort of raw, textured vocals respond well to grit and lo-fi pickups and production that tempers and accentuates the bite, and yet the pickups seek to place him on a much cleaner stage that strikes me as a real misstep. And while part of this falls on Graham - for as much power and composure as he has, I don't find him a particularly subtle or nuanced vocalist, which can undercut his natural charisma - the production is a much bigger problem.

And unfortunately, this also applies to the rest of the instrumentals. And here's the thing: a voice like Rag'N'Bone Man's at its best works best against rougher grooves that can keep pace with him - firm basslines, guitars and keys that hold the melodies, and organic
percussion that can match it all. And yet on average, Rag'n'Bone Man maybe gets one out of three consistently on these songs, and while this project does have a couple of songs from previously existing EPs, it's not enough to be a credible excuse for the wild shifts in tone and quality that occurs across this project. The biggest issue I've already alluded to - if you were expecting the instrumentals to match Graham's voice for texture or bite, you'll find a few credible moments, but nowhere near enough, mostly because the bluesy elements come through most in the basslines and vocals, not in the too-sparse guitars and especially not in the percussion, which nearly always feels programmed and stiffer than it really should. And that's before you factor in the pianos and strings sections and all the songs like 'Be The Man' and 'As You Are' that want to sell this project to John Legend's audience... but that doesn't really work, half because Legend's smooth natural charisma works for that production and half because a lot of that material has a looser, more live feel to balance out the polish - when John Legend wants percussion, he gets Questlove, not the stiffer drum machines that serve as percussion on this record. And that's before we get the jarring contrast in tones between some otherwise decent basslines and beats that feel muddy as all hell, which certainly don't fit with strings and horns that are too clean by half. That's not saying there aren't a few good hooks - 'Bitter End', particularly in the pianos, parts of 'Human' before the beat switch, and there's some decent momentum behind 'Grace' even if it does feel too clean by half. Hell, the best song here is 'Arrow', which feels like a swinging 70s soul cut and actually feels well-blended, but on an album of that era it'd be a deep cut at best, it's far from spectacular. And the only other song I'd argue has serious quality is 'Die Easy' - and it's an a capella tune, so you never need to worry about bad mixing!

Of course, this is where we get to the lyrics - and look, it's not Rag'n'Bone Man's fault that this record was sandwiched on my schedule by Jaime Wyatt, Ed Sheeran, and Sun Kil Moon, all of whom are bringing more detail and character and style to their material. Graham isn't even close to the same ballpark as Hozier, half because these songs feel so basic in their word choice, but more because of the themes and subject matter that at best feel misplaced and at worst are condescending and more than a little insufferable. And again, if you dig into Hozier's writing, he could fall in similar territory, but not only was he self-aware but he played into the stories through his framing or through tongue-in-cheek wry self-awareness, which earned a lot more of the drama and melodrama. And yet from the very first track 'human', the sentiment is a complete denial of any sense of responsibility - the usage of the word 'blame' is important, because it calls an attitude of self-righteous deflection that's all over this record and worse still seems to be embraced whole-heartedly in his relationships. And in the next three songs, we get pictures of bad relationships that should all end for as tortuous as he describes them, and yet in each case he throws a hail mary to try and save something, and it really feels self-serving. And sure, you could call it melodrama, and he's certainly trying to sell it through his delivery, but when the instrumentation can't match it and there's no real flair in the writing or self-awareness, it's not remotely likable. Or take 'Be The Man', where he's trying to open up and he wants this girl to trust him, but on the second verse he says 'I don't have to say a word to you' - I get the sentiment of unspoken trust, but I'm not sure it's earned here. At least there is a breakup on 'Grace', but instead of actually reflecting on his mistakes, he brushes it all aside by saying 'we're all one step away from grace' and more concerned how this girl will remember him - the optics, not actually learning something. It gets a lot worse on 'Love You Any Less', where it seems like he wants her to confess her mistakes and that he won't love her any less - how was that even on the table - but then in the second half of the chorus he says 'don't hide behind me/you're strong enough to face the fall' - this isn't an expression of support in a relationship, it's self-serving in a really ugly way. And that definitely comes through on 'Ego', which is a diss track to some unknown arrogant figure, and not only are a bunch of rhymes flubbed, it's the last thing I want to hear from this sort of artist, especially when he's trying and failing to come across as a tortured. It's also why songs like 'Arrow', 'As You Are', and 'Die Easy' probably work the best - pretty straightforward in the writing, with the latter being a decent bluesy sendoff, the emotional stakes are a little more approachable.

But even with that faint praise, I didn't like this album, and I didn't even get into how many of the songs end abruptly, or how so much of it feels like a mishmash of influences that don't compile into a unique sound - this isn't interestingly diverse, it's a mess. I'm not denying that Rag'N'Bone Man is a potent singer, but this screams of a major label getting him to cobble together a collection of songs for a debut that don't flow and really don't show off writing that is unique, distinctive, or likable. Even by the standards of melodrama there's just not much flavor here beyond the vocals, and go beyond that you find writing that paints our frontman as self-serving, whiny, and kind of obnoxious, which doesn't remotely fit his style of delivery. In other words, it's a 4/10 and no recommendation - it doesn't seem like the States has any interest in this guy, given that while he did well around the world he landed at #126 on the Billboard 200, so I guess for once they're doing something right. Everyone else... there are better singer-songwriters than this guy, I'd skip it.

No comments:

Post a Comment