Michael Kiwanuka: He’s getting ready
London singer Michael Kiwanuka is the new rising star for this year: He has come top of the “BBC Sound of 2012” and has already toured with Adele. His debut album “Home Again” does sound promising: I love his soulful, warm voice – though I sometimes felt it’s struggling not to drown in the colorful, rich arrangements of his songs.
When you’re named BBC newcomer 2012, life’s not easy. Suddenly, everyone expects your debut album to be an original, perfect revelation of new music. Everyone takes a very close look to see what the fuss is about. While other young singers might get the chance to slowly develop their style, Michael Kiwanuka is out there, NOW, in the spotlight.
And rightly so. What is most unique about Kiwanuka’s album “Home Again” is his voice. It is soulful, warm, comforting. It can be strong and powerful, but sometimes nearly breaks in the quieter songs. His songs are combining sound from soul and new folk/acoustic, so he reminded me of Ben Harper, Otis Redding, Van Morrison (the arrangements mostly) and Ray LaMontagne (the melodies). He’s also been compared to Bill Withers which did not come to my mind but I can understand why – their melodies and voices could be seen as similar.
Bringing together soul, jazzy arrangements and new folk/acoustic
The 10 songs on the album “Home Again” are a mixture between quiet singer-songwriter pieces accompanied by guitar finger-picking, and richer, jazzy arrangements similar to Van Morrison’s “Moondance” or some stuff on his “Day’s like this” album for example (trumpets, backing vocals, sometimes sounds like a full orchestra. Listen here.). I personally prefer the quieter songs because they let Kiwanuka’s beautiful voice carry the song. At times, the fuller arrangements felt too overpowering, and sometimes they even distracted from the voice and melody.
The first song, “Tell me a Tale“, is a good example of this. It brings in jazz flutes, saxophones, trumpets and even more instruments in the verse that are too much for me. Then, the plain but smooth chorus is nearly a relief, because you mostly hear a guitar and Kiwanuka’s voice singing “Lord I need loving”. This part actually reminded me of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual healing”. After listening to the album for a week, the song grew on me and I accepted the arrangement – but I still looked forward to the quieter chorus part of the song.
A song that I’ll always be in
What is equally interesting about “Tell me a Tale” is the lyrics. They seem to set the stage for the whole album, like a benchmark: “Tell me a tale that always was. Sing me a song that I’ll always be in.”
My favorite track: “I’m getting ready”
There are two songs I loved from the first time I listened to the album: “I’m getting ready” and “Home again”. They are unique, touching and memorable. “I’m getting ready” starts with simple finger-picking and nothing but Kiwanuka’s beautiful voice. It’s about learning what it means to believe.
You don’t have to buy into the idea of the Lord saving all your problems to like this song. It speaks to me because what I hear is that one should believe in yourself, stand tall, be free. It’s a hopeful song. I immediately picked up my guitar and tried playing and singing along – and I can’t get it out of my head.
Even after a while this remains the song on the album that touches me most by the intimate voice, great melody, gentle arrangement and its simple message.
The obligatory song about home
“Home again”, the second song I like most on the album, is about hoping to “feel home again”. Many singer-songwriters, like Joni Mitchell, RayLaMontagne and James Taylor have written about the theme “home” in the past. Kiwanuka sings about being strong and similing again when you’re feeling at home. Best part of the song is the introduction with the simple finger-picking and Kiwanuka’s voice. The rest of the instruments join in a subtle way and aren’t too overpowering.
Best feel-good song
“I’ll get along” makes you sing along immediately. It seems like a cheerful song to reassure your partner: you’re not gone, you just need to take some time alone. And you’ll be along in a little while. The arrangement nicely matches the song’s positive message.
Final verdict: Wonderful album for a Sunday morning
The BBC reviewer wrote “Home Again is a folk/soul album, warm and understated with a breath of psychedelia. It might not heave with originality, but it’s run through with a faith and sincerity that just about overpowers reservations.” I agree with this, although I would call some his melodies original, especially in “I’m getting ready.” I’m curious how he sounds live (I have tickets to the Cambridge concert in May) and I hope his voice comes out strongly, without too many additional instruments on stage.