What it lacks in immediacy, Kiwanuka more than makes up for in sheer declarative artistry.
For his third release, Michael Kiwanuka expands his retro-futurist vibe by embarking on an album of heady, psychedelic soul. Where his first album trafficked in Bill Withers/Terry Callier territory and his second upped the ante slightly by enlisting the help of producers Danger Mouse and Inflo, Kiwanuka feels like a sizable stylistic leap forward. Opening track “You Ain’t the Problem” sets the tone for much of what is to come with its myriad instrumental layers, heavy percussion, echo-y vocals and early-to-mid-‘70s heavy soul vibe. In essence, its the aural distillation of the album’s cover portrait, something itself seemingly out of that particular era of post-Civil Rights righteousness in both music and image. Here, Danger Mouse proves a perfect musical foil for Kiwanuka’s throwback aesthetic and soulful experimentalism.
“Rolling” updates the anti-war/anti-violence sentiments of the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye within a modernist framework that manages to sound both culled from another time and very much of the moment. It’s not likely to make any sort of massive commercial headway or gain a larger following among the flavor-of-the-month set, but, like its vaunted predecessors, sets Kiwanuka up for legendary soul status. That the album plays as an album – one track rolling seamlessly into the next – helps further cement its standing as an homage worthy of its influences.
“I’ve Been Dazed” rolls along on a gently shuffling snare riff that would not have sounded out of place on his 2012 debut, Home Again, here updated with the help of Danger Mouse and Inflo’s tasteful, throwback production. The added layers of instrumentation – strings, synths, bass, keys, etc. – helps make Kiwanuka feel like an album of substance rather than a mere collection of pleasant sounding songs delivered in a soulful manner. It’s both progressive and vintage in a way that transcends any sort of trend-setting tropes that would nail the album as being very much of 2019.
On “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love),” the team builds the song around a very prominently placed piano – you can practically here the felt hammers of the instrument striking the strings with the depression of each key – and Kiwanuka’s raw vocals. Even as the strings creep in mid-song, it’s one of the starkest moments the album has to offer from a purely musical and experiential standpoint. This is music that feels like it was created very much in the moment with actual flesh-and-blood human beings behind the recordings. In other words, it captures the magic of those aforementioned late-‘60s/early-‘70s soul and R&B records that have proven so long-lasting and affecting well into the 21st century.
It’s a vibe they successfully manage throughout the record aking for a rewarding listening experience through. Living in Denial,” in particular, sounds phoned in from a bygone era with none of the pastiche or affectation afflicting many a modern throwback artist, while “Hard to Say Goodbye” is an absolute stunner that sounds like a crate-digger’s wet dream. And while there isn’t anything on the album that stands out as a potentially massive or era-defining single, the level of quality throughout the albums sets it apart from many of its peers, showing the degree of care on the part of all parties involved. What it lacks in immediacy, Kiwanuka more than makes up for in sheer declarative artistry.