“Tell me a tale that always was / Sing me a song I will always be in”
I first came across Michael Kiwanuka’s powerful blend of folk and soul on a Communion label sampler released last year where his debut single ‘Tell Me a Tale’ held pole position. The song immediately grabbed my attention with a sound that showed evident influences of soul artists of the 70’s, but with a definite contemporary feel. Since then Michael’s star has been steadily on the rise as his music spread further, gathering attention until finally he was announced as the winner of the BBC Sound of 2012 award. Having come ahead of such noteworthy competitors as Lianne La Havas, Frank Ocean and Friends, a weight of expectation has awaited the release of Michael’s debut album Home Again, an expectation which Michael fulfils and exceeds.
Opening track ‘Tell Me a Tale’ sets the mood for the album, with percussion, flute and horns that evoke the free-time leanings of jazz-poets, while Michael’s hypnotically striking voice is reminiscent of Terry Callier. The lazy Sunday morning song ‘Rest’ lulls you into feeling like you’re drifting gently along down a river of mellow pianos and stings, before leading into the title track ‘Home Again’. This song has gained a lot of airplay since its release as a single prior to the album release and deservedly so since it beautifully shuffles along, centring on Michael’s voice and guitar before he is joined by evocative strings. The tasteful presence of backing singers and orchestral augmentation on this song (and indeed most of the album) brings a touch of class to the proceedings, giving the feel of a gospel choir in which Michael’s soulful crooning takes the lead as he sings “And the tears will clear, / Then I’ll feel no fear.”
‘Always Waiting’ is a song of yearning and moving on into tomorrow that drives on with the momentum of a steam train and which echoes the indelible songwriting of Paul Simon. Meanwhile, ‘I Won’t Lie’ is a bold soul anthem which sounds like a cutting room outtake from a forgotten Sam Cooke or Otis Redding session. For Michael to be able to weigh in with these soul titans shows his extraordinary ambition, and even more extraordinary is that he manages to pull it off. Elsewhere on the album, ‘I’ll Get Along’ and ‘Bones’ see Michael playing the unabashed romantic with heart on sleeve proclamations like “Without you I’m just bones.”
While the majority of the album is uplifting and optimistic, the closing duo of brooding tango ‘Any Day Will Do Fine’ and closing time confessional ‘Worry Walks Beside Me’ demonstrate that Michael is not afraid to plumb the dark, sombre depths of the soul. The sweeping strings and bold brass of the former push Michael’s aching vocals and tense guitar melodies to heady heights. As the strings fade and the lights seemingly dim, we are lead into the melancholic album closer ‘Worry Walks Beside Me’. Michael’s stark guitar and even starker vocals open the track and captivate the listener as waves of strings, backing vocals and piano swirl around. As always, Michael’s yearning vocals hold precedence on both tracks which bring the album to a majestic close on a contemplative note.
Over the course of the album Michael covers an impressive spectrum of raw emotion, from uplifting affirmation of life to melancholic lows and every pit stop in between. The album as a whole expresses a wealth of personal experience that belies Michael’s age and which is coupled with a sound that is bold and audacious, but in no way sounds arrogant or overreaches. Though his influences are plain to see, ultimately Michael’s unique character evident throughout Home Again shows that these are just influences rather than sources for cheap imitation. Michael Kiwanuka is the real thing, with songs that possess a balanced gentility that touches the heart and present a budding talent that we will no doubt hear from again.
Home Again is available in record stores on Communion now.