Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate (Review)
Review by Jack Foley
HIGH hopes abound for the sophomore album from Michael Kiwanuka but they’re answered in effortlessly classy fashion with Love & Hate, which arrives like a timeless classic full of power and grace.
Having emerged as one of the most promising singer-songwriters of his generation ahead of the release of his debut LP Home Again in 2012, Kiwanuka sometimes struggled to maintain the excitement of early EP tracks such as Tell Me A Tale or live up to the comparisons with the likes of Curtis Mayfield or Otis Reading that were bestowed upon him.
Having taken his time to follow that debut up, Kiwanuka appears to have come back even stronger, achieving a greater consistency with Love & Hate, doubtless aided by the fact that he has also teamed up with the stupendously talented Danger Mouse as well as young British producer Inflo for the 10 songs that comprise the album.
And he lays out his intentions from the outset, with the epic opener Cold Little Heart underlining the scope of his ambition this time around. Clocking in at 11 minutes, this opens with an almost five minute instrumental that sounds more like a cinema soundtrack moment than a song. But it’s shot through with beauty, with swirling strings and beautifully realised piano arrangements eventually ushering in Kiwanuka’s distinct, even classic vocal style.
It’s the sort of offering that would be saved to end most albums; yet here it is boldly setting things in motion. Yet while stunning in its own right, it doesn’t mean the album peaks too soon.
Further highlights come from former single and album title track Love & Hate, which finds Kiwanuka employing his soulful, emotive vocals over some lush, laidback harmonies and some nice acoustics and beats.
The ‘ba ba da ba’ harmonies are a nice touch that add to the instantly catchy nature of the track, while the sense of longing and confusion in the heartfelt lyrics are palpable and made all the more resonant by the strength of Kiwanuka’s delivery. The guitar work at the end of the song ensures the song ends on a real high too, further evidence of the meticulous layering that goes into virtually every song.
Rule The World strips things back a little more, yet maintains the questioning nature of the song’s themes. It asks things like “Do I have to lose my mind?” and “Will they ever let me out?” over stripped back guitars and background soul harmonies. It’s simple but tellingly effective, soothing yet thought-provoking, mindful of the classic style of the artists Kiwanuka clearly feels inspired by, yet progressive in the way that it embraces current thinking.
But again, the expressive nature of Kiwanuka’s vocals really shines through, even once the back-beats kick in beautifully around the two minute mark.
Falling offers up another gem… a sense of hope, a tinge of sorrow, expertly arranged beats, pianos and guitars, and a sharp mix of old and new sounds. It’s the type of record that Redding would have been proud to lay his vocals over; yet the beat composition has the very contemporary vibe of a Danger Mouse production. The guitars, meanwhile, have a classic beauty to them that reminds of classic rock acts.
And if you’re thinking it’s just old soul classics that Kiwanuka can be compared with, then think again. The aforementioned Cold Little Heart channels classic Pink Floyd in some of its instrumentals, while the melancholy I’ll Never Love sounds like classic, stripped down Eric Clapton (a la Tears In Heaven mixed with I Shot The Sheriff, if you will).
That song also employs more enchanting and beguiling string arrangements that enhance the high production values and cinematic sweep of the album. Likewise, Father’s Child, another epic production clocking in at just over seven minutes, and combining intimate lyrics about a father-son relationship with swirling strings, stirring background harmonies and classic soul vocals. If Elbow turned to soul, this is what they might sound like!
Closing track The Final Frame opens with some cracking guitar work, before coming over all ballad-like, and hitting home once again with another thoughtful exploration of love and life. Strings also replace the guitars for long periods, once more underlining the epic nature of the LP and its cinematic leanings, and thereby making the guitar interludes all the more thrilling.
It’s a fittingly beautiful climax to an album that consistently captivates the heart and the mind. Kiwanuka has delivered the classic album he has long been threatening.
Download picks: Cold Little Heart, Falling, Love & Hate, The Final Frame, I’ll Never Love, Father’s Child