Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The thought of following up 2016’s monumental Love & Hate must have weighed heavily on singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka. After all, that disc — his second — not only put him on the commercial map through its epic opening gem “Cold Little Heart” (an edited version of the nine minute track used as the theme for HBO’s hit series Big Little Lies didn’t hurt) but combined innovative, even pioneering production with superb songwriting — a work few others achieve in a lifetime. It was a clear highlight of that year and rightly landed on many Best Of lists.
Three years later the unassumingly titled Kiwanuka aims as high as its predecessor for greatness. Ultimately it doesn’t quite get there, but there’s plenty to satisfy those who appreciated Kiwanuka’s undeniable talent and ability to effortlessly mesh soul, R&B, space rock, gospel, and blues into something unique and personal. To that end, the production team of Danger Mouse and Inflo return to try to catch similar lightning in a bottle as on Love & Hate.
Even though this album is apparently meant to be absorbed at a single listen since many tracks blend into the next, the songs are immaculately produced and arranged. Idiosyncratic strings that shift from romantic to edgy enhance nearly every selection, multiple keys and synths layer themselves over and under the melodies and odd, retro-styled background vocals nearly steal the spotlight on cuts such as the first single “You Ain’t the Problem.” It kicks off like an outtake from Graceland before exploding with horns and supporting singers that sound like they are mimicking an early ’60s TV commercial. Along with the following “Rolling,” they are Kiwanuka’s most upbeat melodies here.
Each tune is flawlessly and intricately constructed and some, like the dreamy and appropriately titled “I’ve Been Dazed,” feature just Kiwanuka with one of his producers overdubbed on multiple instruments. Lyrics find the singer often questioning his place in the world with “I know I’m here and I don’t belong” from “Solid Ground” and “Following the crowd/ Could have been a stronger man” underscoring the ecologically based “Final Days.” He’s also searching for love, but in a far more oblique fashion than typical songsmiths when he sings “I lived a lie/ Love is the crime/ It’s you I believe in.” Kiwanuka’s instantly recognizable vocals stay on a similar low boil as Bill Withers, weaving through the melody with a modest innocence perfectly meshing with this sometimes quirky, always intriguing music.
This isn’t as immediately powerful or riveting as Love & Hate. But the multifaceted material, along with the pioneering, organic and often offbeat production, grows on you. Listening closely with headphones heightens and intensifies the experience. It proves Love & Hate wasn’t a fluke and that Michael Kiwanuka remains one of this generation’s most restless, creative and genre expanding musicians.