There are certain hardy annuals in the music industry. Spring is awards season, followed by endless weekends of summer festivals. In autumn, the bigger-selling acts hawk their new albums, then in midwinter the focus switches to finding next year’s superstars.
In the UK, the definitive ones-to-watch list is drawn up by the BBC, who canvas numerous industry tastemakers before announcing what is now a coveted award, given the subsequent successes of Adele (Sound of 2008) and Ellie Goulding (Sound of 2010).
In 2011 that early career boost went to the sassy, slang-spouting Jessie J – not to everyone’s joy. Short-term style over long-term substance, insisted the naysayers.
This year’s poll-winner, Michael Kiwanuka, looks a long-term proposition. The talented North Londoner has dabbled with the edgier wing of the British pop scene, playing session guitar for the teen-friendly rappers Chipmunk and Bashy, but his solo work is free of feisty bravado and instead takes its cue from early 1970s R&B, the period where urban pop became that bit more aware and ambitious.
Having been inspired to learn guitar by an early flirtation with Nirvana, Radiohead and punk, the budding songwriter discovered Otis Redding and has now settled into one of the soul train’s folksier carriages. Home Again is a modern take on the thoughtful sit-down strumming of Bill Withers and Terry Callier, but married to the creative instrumentation of Shuggie Otis, David Axelrod and even Barry White’s majestic Love Unlimited Orchestra, if not the Walrus of Love himself.
In fact, the initial buzz around Kiwanuka was partly due to a bee, or at least one of the Bees: Paul Butler from that respected psychedelic rock band was the singer’s co-conspirator, conjuring some mesmerising settings for his rich, resonant voice. The alchemy of their unlikely collaboration became immediately apparent when Take Me Home’s opening track, Tell Me a Tale, popped and crackled from discerning radio stations last year. The duo recorded the album on the hoard of old equipment kept in Butler’s basement and made particularly splendid use of it on this flute-laden, echo-heavy epic.
Sadly, the rest of the record struggles to match the ear-pricking feats of that song. Kiwanuka has suggested that he wanted Home Again to be “warm and peaceful and put the listener in this little world, which is rich with vibes and sounds and colours”, a goal he achieves, but the desire for pastoral splendour also strips the record of drama. Butler’s backdrops are frequently impressive, but sticking rigidly to a retro ethos also limits Kiwanuka’s scope for experimentation and improvisation.
There are sporadic moments of wonder. The jaunty harmonies of Bones hark back to 1950s doo-wop and mask a gloomy tale of unrequited love (“without you I’m just bones”), while the newest composition, Always Waiting, is a stirringly moody folk song, albeit centred on the album’s recurring theme: the singer’s tendency to mope around. This uninspiring compulsion is most evident on the sparse closing track, Worry Walks Beside Me, an all-too-distant descendant of both Redding’s Sitting on the Dock of the Bay and Marvin Gaye’s groundbreaking What’s Going On. Where Gaye drew attention to a world in crisis, the young pretender is, frankly, a little whiny. He even looks thoroughly miserable on the album cover.
Expecting a 24-year-old from an affluent London suburb to fully empathise with those who helped mobilise the US civil rights movement is perhaps a little unfair (although his parents are refugees from Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda, so genuine troubles are not too far removed). And artists such as Gaye and Stevie Wonder were hardly naive newcomers when they embarked on their more ambitious works, having each spent a decade performing more poppy material. Kiwanuka can mature at his own pace.
For a debut album, Home Again is finely honed and hugely promising, if also mired in the past glories of others. Now it’s time for this gifted singer-songwriter to find a sound of his own.
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