Love & Hate

Michael Kiwanuka

Polydor Records, 2016

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Ten minutes on Twitter generally leaves me feeling like I need to shower. There are exceptions, though, such as when someone with evident good taste in music uses the platform to make a recommendation. If Michael Kiwanuka is wondering what’s up with this out-of-nowhere review of his 2016 release Love & Hate, he can thank his loyal fan Jason Isbell.

On this, Kiwanuka’s breakthrough album, the London-born-and-raised son of immigrants from Uganda draws you into a sonic environment that’s rich with influences yet inimitably unique, weaving together threads of electro-soul, orchestral jazz, gospel and blues, decorating them with flowing, resonant strings and chorused background vocals, and punctuating the whole confection with strategically-timed explosions of dirty, funked-up electric guitar. He’s a soul singer at heart, but one whose musical vocabulary spans genres and continents with instinctive ease.

Kiwanuka’s songs are a wonder in that so many things about them feel both contradictory and in perfect harmony. At the mike he never hurries, yet never holds back, drawing you farther under his spell with each deep groove, each silky melody, until a heartfelt chorus catapults you into the clouds. The imaginative, genre-hopping musical settings crafted by Kiwanuka and his production team of Danger Mouse (Black Keys), Inflo (Sault), and Paul Butler (The Bees) brings it all together in a coherent yet wildly diverse musical vision; in its own way Love & Hate is as progressive as any modern prog album, without adopting any of that genre’s conventions other than an indifference to typical song structure and arrangements. Call it symphonic soul if you will, or simply Kiwanuka music: a fantastic, electric melding of old and new sounds framing his evocative vocals and lyrics.

Kiwanuka and crew waste no time getting after it, opening with a 10:10 string-heavy expedition into the far reaches of electro-soul (“Cold Little Heart”) that’s like nothing you’ve ever heard; it’s as if Marvin Gaye cut a mini-epic with the Moody Blues, with Quincy Jones producing and Gary Clark Jr. playing the guitar solos. A dramatic orchestral opening is soon joined by chorused background vocals, strings and voices all crying out, before transitioning into a wordless vocal / guitar / strings overture that brings the rhythm section in and establishes the core melodic motif. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

At around 4:30 the music falls back a bit and they move into the spare, airy segment of the song that introduces Kiwanuka’s lead vocal and was also used as the theme for HBO’s Big Little Lies. It’s an otherworldly, haunting moment, like stepping through a mirror into another world, which of course made it the perfect mood-enhancer for the repressed yet explosive hyper-reality of that series. Kiwanuka’s vocals are spectacular throughout “Cold Little Heart,” forming the warm, human fulcrum of a masterful musical construction whose complexity never feels contrived, only expansive and compelling.

The more concise (4:19) “Black Man In A White World” features propulsive handclaps and a kick drum that keeps pushing and pushing as Kiwanuka takes on the cadence of an upbeat African-American spiritual, with background vocals and strings punctuating the melody with piercing accuracy. The density of sound inevitably reminds of Sly & The Family Stone, while the frank, unsparing lyric is both more timely than ever, and said to be one of the inspirations for Isbell’s own “White Man’s World.”

“Falling” is a different sort of set piece, featuring echoey tambourine out of a Motown dream, and a langourous tempo, melody and arrangement that captures the dreaminess of falling. Kiwanuka’s deliberate, piercing electric guitar solo mirrors this feel, even as its greasy Black Keys-like tone reminds you that Danger Mouse co-produced this particular track. The orchestral jazz influence comes to the forefront on “Place I Belong,” whose strings and reverb-laden chorused background vocals remind of Quincy Jones’ epochal Walking In Space album.

The album’s extended seven-minute title track resurfaces background vocal motifs from “Cold Little Heart” alongside funk guitar and a searching soul vibe (“Can’t you see there’s more to me than my mistakes?”). Kiwanuka and company build it up and strip it back over and over, spare and haunting early verses eventually giving way to a searing, distorted electric guitar solo that pushes the song toward an ecstatic climax.

After that superb first half, the deeper tracks get a bit patchier. “One More Night” and “I’ll Never Love” offer steady-on, more conventional r&b that’s pleasant enough but lacks the creative exuberance of the preceding tracks. “Rule The World” bounces back with intriguing dynamics and more melodic callbacks to “Cold Little Heart,” opening with Kiwanuka’s voice and spare, dreamy guitar, first joined by strings and then goosed by sharp exclamations from the background vocal chorus as the song gains momentum.

Penultimate track “Father’s Child” feels earnest but meandering, a mélange of by-now-familiar elements highlighted by Kiwanuka’s distant, distorted guitar solo over haunting piano on the outro. The album closes out with “The Final Frame,” a gentle, swaying, heartfelt ballad featuring Kiwanuka counterpointing his smooth voice with more jagged, fuzzed-out guitar.

The story goes that Michael Kiwanuka was pressured by industry types to adopt a stage name that might be easier for consumers to navigate than the one he was born with. His refusal to conform is an essential piece of the creative identity on display on Love & Hate, an album that resolutely refuses to rush anything, taking its time, weaving its magic, transporting the listener into a sonic universe all its own. I enjoyed my visit thoroughly.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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