In an age where the dull monotony of ‘chart music’ seems to form a grey cloud overhead, it’s rare to find a record that does more than cause a brief ray of light or a suggestion of sunshine. Rare perhaps, but evidently not impossible. As someone who uses this blog sparingly at best, it takes something truly monumental to inspire me to put pen to paper (or more accurately, fingers to keyboard). Bear that in mind as we proceed.
Let’s start this story from the very beginning. Imagine, if you will, a 16 year-old me, sat in a tiny university radio studio with my best mate and (then) bandmate Dino. We’ve played a song or two and the show’s host decides to put on a track to keep the show’s momentum flowing. It is in this moment that I first encounter the modern Motown sway of Michael Kiwanuka.
The song she played (Tell Me A Tale) was admittedly excellent but didn’t necessarily capture my imagination. I bought his debut album and enjoyed it without any great impression being made upon me. It was an album I revisited recently and found just as appealing; beautiful, yes, but not a paradigm-shifting behemoth of a record. This collection of songs preempted Michael Kiwanuka’s disappearance.
Not a real disappearance, of course, more a backwards step out of the limelight. Having won the BBC’s prestigious Sound Of 2012 and scored a number 4 album, he vanished from the collective consciousness of the British music scene, seemingly forgotten.
Until earlier this year.
Earlier this year. A time when I was still reeling from 2015, possibly the worst year for music I’d gone through in my 20 years on this earth. A year punctuated by only a few albums of any merit at all; Foals’ What Went Down, Everything Everything’s Get To Heaven, Tame Impala’s Currents and a few other lower status releases.
This year had started well. A number of excellent works had begun to lift the gloom of the previous year, including The Last Shadow Puppets’ brilliant Everything You’ve Come to Expect and Mystery Jets’ Curve of the Earth. Radiohead even had a new album. And then one night, I was watching Later…with Jools Holland and my world was turned on its head by a man I never thought I’d see again. You guessed it.
Michael Kiwanuka. And he played this.
Now you have to understand that this may seem a fairly dramatic account of this whole story, and to that I would say two things: first, you don’t understand the impact this album has had on me, and second, it’s a blog post and it’d be boring without a little hyperbole.
I was flabbergasted by the sheer brilliance of this song. That vocal hook! That guitar solo! Those backing vocals! It was the best thing I’d heard in a long, long time. And so I started keeping an eye out for more releases. I heard a couple of other tracks off of the album, and resolved that I had to hear it as soon as it came out. So I began waiting, looking out for any versions of new tracks going up.
And then, as I nursed a truly astronomical hangover on a Sunday afternoon, I listened to it.
I had never been so deeply taken aback by an album on first listen. Imagine Pink Floyd circa 1995 doing soul and Motown. Then replace David Gilmour’s voice with a rich vein of audio gold, replace synthesizers with sweeping string arrangements, replace your perceptions of what constitutes genius with something new altogether. You’d be hard pressed to find any album audacious enough to open with a 5 minute slide guitar solo over soul backing, only to change key and begin the song proper and still manage to make it work. The worst part is, you don’t realise how much you loved those opening 5 minutes until the reprise at the end of the track. This track, Cold Little Heart, would be the piece de resistance of most albums. But not this one.
The next two tracks are wonderful. Love and Hate comes in at track 5 and fails to become any less stupendous. Rule The World begins with confusing, effects-laden guitar and ends with Kiwanuka’s backing vocalists riffing at will over a current of electric guitar that shimmers and crackles as if it were pure energy. The Final Frame is a fitting conclusion, a chainsaw of a riff giving way to a song of pure heartbreak and agony. The worst song on the album, Place I Belong, is almost identical to Tell Me A Tale, possibly the best song on his last album. It almost seems cruel to curse anything with as negative a superlative as ‘worst’ on a production of such quality. It’s like calling Noel Gallagher the worst guitarist in a room when he’s in there with Dave Gilmour, Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Page, Angus Young and Jimi Hendrix.
Love and Hate is a bolt from the blue in a sea of grey, a spellbinding work of art. Each song is meticulously crafted and yet loose and free, a hammer-blow of handmade heaven and yet gentle as a mothers’ touch, gut-wrenchingly emotional and yet liable to induce tears of joy, joy you feel not because these tracks are necessarily happy but because you’re just so overwhelmed that here, in 2016, someone can still do something this wonderful.
This is more than an ode to Michael Kiwanuka. This is a heartfelt thanks on behalf of music. Thank you, Love and Hate, for saving it. Thank you, Michael Kiwanuka, for your audacity, for your brilliance, and for the message you send. For the love in Love and Hate is plain to see, but it is Kiwanuka’s willingness to address his social background that really resonates here. In an epoch where racial hate is at the forefront of the world’s consciousness, he has looked it dead in the eye, said ‘I see you’, and proceeded to bring this work of love into the world.
Hate? Sure. But mostly love.