Review: Michael Kiwanuka - Love & Hate

Michael Kiwanuka: Love & Hate

A lot’s happened to Michael Kiwanuka in 5 years. He was a surprise winner of the BBC Sound of 2012, he supported Adele on a worldwide tour, his debut album earned him a Mercury Prize nomination, and he even released an EP on Jack White’s Third Man Records. Yet still he’s struggled somewhat to be considered a real household name.

Perhaps it’s something to do with his conspicuous affinity with retro: Kiwanuka’s first album, Home Again, channelled the likes of Bill Withers, Otis Redding and Eric Bibb; it was acoustic, it was warm and it was gentle. The only criticism you could softly push his way was that, in some cases, he felt a little too derivative of his heroes. It was safe, and didn’t break a sweat.

Now, in 2016, Michael Kiwanuka is back, and he wants to go bigger, in all senses of the term. While his debut album comprised mostly of standard, pop-song length tracks, Love & Hate stretches the average duration of a song closer to 6 minutes. Opening track ‘Cold Little Heart’, a whopping 10 minutes, tells us many things. It lets us know that Kiwanuka, a former session guitarist, wants to bring some flamboyance: as well as a colossal string opening, the track is laden with psychedelic licks and runs from the man himself. When Kiwanuka’s voice finally enters, it becomes apparent that he’ looking for something slightly different than on the previous record, melodies with more bite, that stick in the memory. It’s a meandering, tragic epic of sorts, reminiscent of Pink Floyd in its size and shape, and it’s at times utterly glorious.

Kiwanuka appears, then, to have taken a step forward in his musical journey, from something a little like Motown to something a little more like soul 30 years ago.  The one track that takes a step back, ‘Black Man In A White World’, however, is easily the most powerful track on the album, incorporating many genres but falling closest to the early work of Ray Charles. It’s simple, upbeat, repeatable yet damning. It’s the best combination of all the new elements at work in the album – it shows Kiwanuka’s eagerness to progress and impress, and feels most comfortable in its composition. The line itself has caused controversy (although heaven knows why), but it’s this line, this quick quip that feels the most real on the album.

The rest of the album is undeniably filled with impressive competence – yet too often you can still second-guess where Kiwanuka is going. The ambition of tracks like ‘Love & Hate’ is laudable, but there isn’t quite enough to the original material to hold the audience in its grasp. The opening of ‘Falling’ feels a little like a song taken from Damon Albarn’s Everyday Robots, but once more moves into a huge, sprawling soundworld, filled with wah-wah pedals and a grand spectacle. ‘Place I Belong’ almost feels like it could have been on the previous album, and is ironically the song in which Kiwanuka’s raspy vocal feels at home.

Perhaps therein lies the trouble with Love & Hate – Kiwanuka’s voice is oaky, soulful, relaxing, but not cutting, perhaps not abrasive enough to make this work. ‘Father’s Child’, another 7 minute track that could easily lose a couple of solos here and there, needs a sharp voice, someone to take the mic and take control. While Kiwanuka’s voice has many things to admire in it, authority is not one of them.

Everything within this album feels ambitious, indulgent and willing to adapt – but perhaps Michael Kiwanuka was always meant to be a vision of the past. While it’s great to see him try to change, he still feels more at home in another time.