Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Poetic Despair: Michael Kiwanuka's Love & Hate

If it’s possible to write an album about despair then Love & Hate (Polydor) by British singer and musician Michael Kiwanuka is about as poetic a statement one can make on the subject. The singer’s second album, whose density of emotion is dressed with an equally dense score, can also be a little demanding. Yet it is probably one of the most engaging records I’ve heard all year. And while it delivers a slightly dark message, I’m entranced by Kiwanuka’s bold pallet of sound matched by his inspired performance. Love & Hate is so full of sadness and resignation that at times it's almost too heavy to enjoy. But Kiwanuka’s album effectively succeeds in pulling you into his world and after awhile it’s not such a bad world to experience.

Love & Hate was recorded in both Los Angeles and London some four years after Kiwanuka’s highly touted 2012 debut album, Home Again. That record drew quick comparisons to soul singer Bill Withers and was nominated for the UK’s Mercury Prize. To me, the new album will probably garner similar comparisons to Marvin Gaye’s unforgettable disc, What’s Going On (1971). But the difference is that while Gaye was expressing his anger and astonishment with an often brutally changing America, Kiwanuka is completely self-centered in his observations. The first five songs, which are slow grooves, have a natural intensity balanced by light string arrangements and plenty of Hammond B3 organ to soften the mix. The opening track “Cold Little Heart” is just over ten minutes long, and it takes a few musical liberties, but the music shifts in tone and texture so much that the risk is worth it. Clearly his producers, Danger Mouse and Inflo, are interested in creating a larger musical pallet. Some critics have compared that composition with Pink Floyd, but Love & Hate is not a “concept album.” Yet the opening track does suggest something like Pink Floyd’s conceptual “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” But I think Kiwanuka is simply reaching for something beyond the 3-minute pop song and if it takes a 10-minute opener to draw the listener into his world then why not open with something long?

Yet it’s the fifth cut really picks up the whole record for me. The moral struggle on “Rule The World,” when he sings “show me love, show me happiness, I can't do this on my own,” with the angelic voices of LaDonna Harley-Peters and Phebe Edwards in full support, is his call for help and it's deeply felt. Although he may not be specifically referring to the current state of his world’s social dysfunction, he feels it and we feel it too. The most overtly striking song to discuss the problem of race is “Black Man in a White World” with its deceptive simplicity of rhyme and reason. We are no less affected by the persistent handclaps and the repeated line “I’m a black man in a white world” with its penetrating chant. It’s the most explicit song about identity as you’ll ever hear and was the bold first single released last spring. A video of the song offers some impressions that seem to capture Kiwanuka’s inner turmoil as he sings, “I’m in love, but I’m still sad, I’ve found peace but I’m not glad, all my nights and all my days, I’ve been trying the wrong way.” In the end we’re not really sure what that “wrong way” is for the young singer.

“The Final Frame” with its blues-based chord changes has a good deal of emotional hurt about a failed relationship boldly expressed by Kiwanuka's guitar style that is a cross between Prince and Buddy Guy. There’s not nearly enough of his soloing on this record, but when he does play he makes it count for something. The title track, “Love & Hate,” is the most similar in shape and sound to Gaye’s classic “Ecology Song” with its steady groove, but Kiwanuka’s tune is a call for divine intervention. “You can't take me down, you can’t break me down” is a hypnotically effective refrain. But, once again, the sympathetic string arrangement works beautifully to create some tension in this dirge for love. Kiwanuka uses the repeating refrain to great effect to create a hopeful mantra.

“One More Night” is the most up-tempo song on the record with its steady beat and inspiring lyrics. The track is certainly positive in approach and attitude as Kiwanuka sings about starting fresh “in the morning” with “no more lies in the day.” It brings welcome relief to the rest of the album and I would have liked more songs like this to balance the heaviness of the record over all. It was released as the third single from the album in April, but it seems American audiences aren’t getting the message. Even though Love & Hate reached Number 1 on the British charts days after its release, it entered the Billboard 200 at number 170 for the week of August 6. (It dropped off altogether the following week.) To put this into perspective, the new Ghostbusters soundtrack entered the charts at Number 18 for the same week of August 6, 2016. (It dropped to #73 the week following.) As Frank Zappa once said when assessing the cultural taste of the United States that Americans love "cheese” instead of something that makes them think. Perhaps Kiwanuka’s music doesn’t reach a mass audience, but it certainly reached me.

– John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. His first book, Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) will be released in September.

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