KIWANUKA opens with a one-two knockout punch. The stunning ‘You Ain’t The Problem’, with its strong political undercurrent, has you dancing from the get-go. This is followed by what might be Michael Kiwanuka’s catchiest, punchiest, song so far – the blistering ‘Rolling’, a song so well constructed that the moment when Michael slows things down and releases his most beautiful vocal performance on the album seems both surprising and inevitable. It’s a superb songwriter at his very best.
At this point, it is clear to see why so many people have been putting this forward as a potential album of the year. Or why The Guardian chose to call it one of the best of the decade. And other moments will come that also justify these huge plaudits; ‘Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)’ is a demonstration of Michael’s more mournful side, but it’s beauty is almost a match for ‘Love & Hate’ and ‘Home Again’ from earlier in his career. And then there’s ‘Hero’. With its Hendrix-esque guitar tones, it’s driving drum beat, and Michael’s clipped but effective vocal line, this track is up there with the best things he’s done. And while the album started with a burst of energy, it ends with a more downbeat beauty. Both ‘Solid Ground’ and ‘Light’ are lovely.
So, all good then. Right? Well no, not quite actually. But before I get to the negatives, I want to take you back to a Saturday evening in August 2017. I was hugging the railings at the front of Michael’s Green Man set, watching on transfixed as he rivalled the likes of Kate Tempest and PJ Harvey for the prize of most awe-inspiring performance of the weekend. I was already a fan, but as he belted out an extended version of ‘Black Man In a White World’ he moved from middle of the table to my top tier. Other songs from second album Love and Hate, such as ‘Cold Little Heart’, ‘Rule The World’, and the aforementioned title song, cemented him into this lofty position. The album became one of my most listened to that year.
And little on his new album, other than ‘Hero’ and potentially the two openers, comes close to the songs I saw live that night. That’s not to say that I don’t like this album. I do. But when reading all the reviews that are acting as this is the birth of some amazing new artist, I have to ask if the reviewers have been listening to his career so far. Because to me this album seems like a steady continuation, rather than an evolution. It feels like someone following up a masterpiece with an album that, understandably, doesn’t quite match up. It is an album that shows an artist still in a career purple patch, but up against a previous album that had no low points, it is a little less consistent and has a few too many songs and interludes that don’t compete with it’s highest highs.
Take out the songs ‘I’ve Been Dazed’, ‘Another Human Being’, ‘Living In Denial’, and ‘Hard to Say Goodbye’ and I might be making a slightly different argument. But all four of them create a distracting dip in quality, during which an album that starts so strongly loses some momentum. Add to that a couple of pointless intros/interludes, and the power of KIWANUKA is, unfortunately, dimmed. In the end, it is a very good piece of work instead of being another masterpiece. That’s okay. While I might not agree with the Guardian’s suggestion that this is an album of the decade, it is still good enough for me to consider its author one of the best artists I discovered in the last ten years.
Words by Fran Slater