Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Seeing a stateside release a few months after his native UK’s initial release of Home Again, Michael Kiwanuka’s brand of folk soul is an anomaly in the world of major labels. With a rich, inviting voice that is paired with equally soothing production that ranges from coffeehouse acoustics to fuller orchestral flourishes from The Bees’ Paul Butler, it’s refreshing to see Interscope get behind an artist who embodies everything that isn’t typically coveted by a major or US Top 40 radio in these modern times.
However, it goes beyond the voice and production. Kiwanuka’s songwriting is folksy – not in the sense of a genre-defining box – but in the way he relays the stories of the common man. On “I Won’t Lie” he sings of being humbled in a completely relatable way as it’s laid over a mainly acoustic guitar bed that occasionally brims with bigger aspirations with rolling tympani and single note brass that hums while it resonates.
Now I have been broken
No longer am I blind
My lesser has spoken
Most of me has been left behind
That conquering spirit allows Kiwanuka and Butler to explore musical beds beyond a singular sound. The album opener “Tell Me A Tale” is a blend of three distinct sections that alternate over a four-minute span. A simple folk arrangement with off kilter drums leads into an Afrobeat segment with a minor key horn arrangement that blends seamlessly into a lush string section that sounds a Paul Riser arrangement from Motown, not to mention a cheery flute line.
Truth be told, Butler could have played it safer with Kiwanuka, and the album would have been just fine. However, by adding little touches like a gospel call and response (“Bones”) and a haunting, echoing choir (“Always Waiting”), the listening becomes a more rewarding experience.
While early comparisons to Bill Withers may be a stretch at this point, Kiwanuka is still an excellent storyteller in his own right. There may not be as potent or beautiful of a track as “Grandma’s Hands” from Withers’ debut album on Home Again, but there’s a sincerity in his voice and songwriting that is to be appreciated. And that’s a better start than most artists have.