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Michael Kiwanuka
Kiwanuka Richard Foster , November 15th, 2019 08:29

Michael Kiwanuka's third album makes for a glorious, heart-stopping listen, finds Richard Foster

They used to say that the third album was always the difficult one; cataloging the moment when an artist’s luck would run out, and the machinations of the business would finally dissolve any traces of individuality into a gloop of commodified sonic spam. How glorious then, that Michael Kiwanuka’s third effort chucks that hoary old trope into the bin.

It can be argued this album records the moment we see Michael Kiwanuka and his talent for what he is; a hugely empathic, enjoyable and insightful force for the good. A modest and polite soul, Kiwanuka’s music often felt as if it came with a sort of shrug of acceptance. But there is an American bullishness about Kiwanuka; no surprise really, as it was recorded in London, Los Angeles and New York. The harnessing of the singer’s clear-sighted intelligence and compassion was maybe fully forged with previous album Love and Hate, but now, with this album, and embodied with tracks like the glorious ‘Solid Ground’, it is the lodestone.

Right from opener ‘You Ain’t the Problem’, when the muffled opening bars blossom out into a glorious, Supremes-style call to action, and through to the brilliant orchestration on closer ‘Light’, there is a swagger and snap about the record. It’s filmic; a widescreen set of beautiful songs that, vitally, allows deeper investigations in terms of content and sound to be carried out elsewhere. There is a feeling throughout that on this release, Kiwanuka recognises that he has the power, and all the time in the world, to get things down on tape. Thus, a remorselessly confessional – and heart-stopping – ballad like ‘Piano Joint’ can live alongside a classic psych funk track like ‘Rolling’ and the bare-chested affirmative soul of ‘Hero’.

Emotional honesty is played through confessions or the mirroring of other situations and experiences. Kiwanuka is supremely skilled (or just brutally honest) in holding a mirror up to his, and others’ human experience. Just listen to the way ‘Another Human Being'’s chilling sample is played off against the bittersweet ‘Living In Denial’; as deadly a one-two as you are likely to hear all year. This rounded approach makes Kiwanuka’s message – both about himself and the world he operates in – all the more valuable. It also allows a musical directness that has often been tarnished or poorly employed in other hands. There are lines that can stop you in your tracks with their honesty. Such as on ‘Final Days’, where “Living honestly / Is so hard for me”; a heartbreaking line. And this inherent honesty gives tracks like ‘I’ve Been Dazed’ an extra lustre: a beautiful hymnal soliloquy driven by a glorious rising chord cycle that would sound utterly preposterous if handled by some geezer who was just doing it for the rock and roll kicks. When the choir and Kiwanuka join forces with the affirmative refrain “time is a healer”, driven by a beautifully subtle chord change, time stops for the listener.

Still, this is a record that entertains like few others. It isn’t afraid of bulling it out, and giving some well-worn sonic conceits a contemporary dust down. It’s a great listen in other words; coaxing on lots of reassuring old pop and soul ideas into the here and now. ‘Hard to Say Goodbye’ initially sounds like it’s ripped directly off Scott 2’s ‘Plastic Palace People’ before it becomes – despite the skyscraping guitar breaks – the sort of hot buttered soul you’d expect on Black Moses or What’s Going On (records that this reviewer feels Kiwanuka shares many psychic similarities with).

It’s very easy for a reviewer to play armchair warrior and forward claims for all sorts of nonsense for music they like. But this is a glorious, heart-stopping, essential album. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by it.