Michael Kiwanuka is an unbelievably talented 24 year-old, this much cannot be denied. The three EPs he released in 2011 were among the best pieces of music to come out of the UK that year and it is no surprise that a major label came calling just in time to sign him as the year ended. Equally not surprising was his nomination for the BBC Sound of 2012, which he subsequently won at the start of this year and rightly so. What is surprising however is the disapproval that some critics have tried to lodge at Kiwanuka’s doorstep and their qualm stems from the notion that apparently Kiwanuka is “not original enough.”
The simple truth of the matter is that when you are making incredible music and great songs like this, nobody should care about originality or the lack thereof because as the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. More pertinently though, on his debut offering, Michael Kiwanuka has created a record that is undeniable however you want to slice it, critic or not.
With influences from (and comparisons to) the likes of Bill Withers, Otis Redding, Pop Staples and Terry Callier, the North London singer, songwriter and musician conjures up a remarkable blend of Soul, Folk and Jazz on his debut album that is very reminiscent of early ’70s classic Soul records. Solely produced by Paul Butler of The Bees, Home Again is very Vintage Soul with its excellent use of brass and string arrangements, jazz flutes and saxophone solos to fit in perfectly with Kiwanuka’s voice and songs which are both warm, infectious, heartfelt, sincere, emotional and compelling.
Lasting for about 38 minutes, Home Again begins with the amazing “Tell Me A Tale” – whose musical milieu, built around glorious solo horn arrangements and lush drum patterns, draws inspiration from the late great Fela Anikulapo-Kuti – and ends with the painfully desolate “Worry Walks Beside Me” which is backed by genius guitar strokes, soft solo keyboard arrangements and Kiwanuka’s brooding vocals, the song borders on spiritual as it tugs at the very core of the listener’s soul.
In between these two beautiful songs, sure favourites among Kiwanuka enthusiasts such as “I’m Getting Ready” [which at only 2:24 minutes is criminally short for such an excellent song] and the album’s title track which, whilst a tad half-paced, is simple, sweet and an excellent showcase of Kiwanuka’s voice (along with “Tell Me A Tale” of course), are placed perfectly in the first half of the album as if to remind you that the Kiwanuka you fell in love with in the first instance is the same Kiwanuka that is on this Polydor Records release.
Making up that half of the record are the awesome sounding “I’ll Get Along” backed by lush jazz flutes, drum patterns, excellent guitar arrangements and gorgeous accompanying backing vocal melodies and the slow burning “Rest” with its excellent string arrangements and Kiwanuka’s soft, tender and heart-warming vocals asking you to “rest your head”.
If Home Again can be described as an album of two halves (and not split good/bad, because the album is very good all the way through) and if the first half feeds the listener’s familiarity with Kiwanuka, the second half is certainly much deeper and more spiritual, a taste of which we get at the top of the album with “I’m Getting Ready.”
“Bones” is a beautiful blend of Jazz, Reggae and Gospel music that is brought together perfectly by Paul Butler on production and there’s definitely something spiritual about “Always Waiting”; a poignant, almost insufferable number laced with commanding acoustic guitar strings and keyboard chords, accompanied by an almost ethereal backing harmony that bellows from the depth of the soul about the desire to breakthrough. Butler, not only on these songs but all through the record adds a tangible texture to Home Again that is worth several mentions.
“I Won’t Lie” also has a Gospel feel to it with its arresting arrangements and musical milieu and Kiwanuka’s warm yet commanding vocals asking for comfort from his “brother” while “Any Day Will Do Fine” is as heart-rending and pressing a love song as you will hear in 2012. Backed largely by commanding brass and string arrangements, Kiwanuka sings desperately and beautifully about needing his leading lady’s gentle touch.
My only trouble, if any, with Home Again is that it seems rather short – but maybe that is a good thing, leaving little to no room for uninspiring songs; all ten tracks have earned their spot here, with none proving to be a disappointment. An early contender for British record of the year.