Being the winner of BBC’s Sound of 2012 comes with some stresses. The champion of a panel of music experts naturally draws huge industry attention, especially in recent years when the competition has acquired a sort of officialdom, and analysis, expectation and counter-analysis ensue in near-molecular detail. Industry hopes revolve to a certain degree I feel, around the idea that the champion will bring music sales up, and cultivate a new collective confidence in mainstream music.
History has shown there are two generalised ‘camps’ available for such labelled messiahs to fall into. They can either rise above the circus and keep on like nothing has happened (which it hasn’t) (Adele in 2008, Arctic Monkeys’ Mercury Music Prize in 2006): GOOD. Or spin into an over-exposure nightmare, fight media radiation poisoning, and finally supernova: BAD (The Bravery, 2005 and Little Boots 2009). Nuff said. Well it isn’t quite as clear as that, but evidently the award is no Willy Wonka ticket, self-fulfilling prophecy for glory and recognition.
Anyway, if you’re a cynic, the fact Kiwanuka won the BBC poll in 2012 is as big a revelation as PJ Harvey taking the Mercury Prize for Let England Shake (not a very big one). Putting aside his voice and songwriting- which are probably the real reasons why he won, let’s be fair folks- his warm, folksy image and familiar sound fitted perfectly with the anxious public mood. Our country is facing financial hardship in case you didn’t know; we are all suffering socially, and we want an easier time, back when things made sense. So cue the present day Bill Withers slash Otis Redding, slash nice guy with a nice voice wearing a nice wooly jumper. Aw. If that deconstruction sounds quite close to home, The Observer took similar cues from the artwork, for its inspiration: “it desperately wants to be a 33rpm vinyl record with a faded sleeve that first entered thesecond-hand record market around 1973…” Yeah, so 1973 wasn’t all roses. But that needle hitting the worn out vinyl is powerful and iconic. The nation inhales its sound and smell wistfully, into its deepest recesses at times of worry.
Yet the guy really is good. Contemporary scepticism shouldn’t detract from what a marvellous voice Kiwanuka has, and so gentle and nuanced. He writes with a composed maturity that is wise beyond his mid-twenties years too. *….Scratchy beardy….* It can be beautiful. It is often remarkably precocious. So who cares if Kiwanuka is what we want? Let us have him!
It was with the fanfare of 2012’s bestowed honour that debut LP Home Again was ushered in on 12th March on Polydor (part of Universal Music). On the day, Kiwanuka played a low key set at Rough Trade East (review), London, his home taaan. Back in November 2011, he was first introduced to mainstream audiences on BBC’s Later with…Jools Holland, arguably the perfect medium for his music, with its liberal, intelligentsia-leaning mid-thirties fan base. The wonderful performance was followed by a sold-out live UK tour, and the limited numbers ‘Tell Me A Tale’ EP quickly became hot property. ‘Tell Me A Tale’ and ‘I’m Getting Ready’, which he performed on Jools, became the album’s two openers. Following generally favourable live press, ( although some note he is quite the better performer without accompanying musicians), Kiwanuka will take to the road, touring Europe, before playing UK festivals at home and abroad.
So what about the album? Is it much cop? Well the good news is Home Again is easy to get a grip on. Its melodies are soft, warm and the arrangements bristle with familiar flourishes of jazz, folk and soul. You won’t take much adjusting, and your mum can sit comfortably in the next room (or with you even). But, as much as Kiwanuka should be nailing that whole mature, soulful tenderness thing, which he does at times, something is missing. Sometimes, the band’s accompaniment makes a steady groove languid, rather than heartfelt; a bit glazed, rather than reflective; such as ‘Bones’, in which the band arrangement makes it sound like it should be sung by Amy Winehouse a la 50s supper club style, not a straight-talking guy in a wool jumper muddling his way through. Compare the recording with the version you can hear live at the Union Chapel, and you can see, easily and plainly, that Kiwanuka draws a better solitary, impassioned figure, guitar casually slung around his front, than a sassy know-it-all with sophisticated backing. I wouldn’t direct that possible shortcoming at Kiwanuka but it is an observation I would make, and it has the potential to breed disappointment, or at least, confusion. This style sits in stark contrast to ‘I’m Getting Ready’, perhaps the album’s most multi-faceted track, with its bare and simple arrangement. It just shows how brilliant Kiwanuka is as a talent, that he is more captivating alone.
The latter part of the album contains some aesthetically wonderful accoutrements to the lounge style (‘Always Waiting’ notably, and ‘Any Day Will Do Fine’), but it’s noticeably more coffee shop pleasantries than tender momentum. Closer ‘Worry Walks Beside Me’ is an enjoyable ballad laced with troubling minor chords, but somehow you want Kiwanuka to be leading this homage to fear and worry, not his band, and for some of the smooth edges of the album's rich, oaky construction to be chipped away a bit, with the imperfections but reality of Kiwanuka’s own personality, whatever that might be.
Overall, Home Again is a mixed prospect. To this novice’s ears, the songs you’ve already heard might be the best (‘Tell Me A Tale’, ‘I’m Getting Ready’ and ‘Home Again’) but there’s no doubt they are great. Additionally, ‘I’ll Get Along’ is another blitz of retro pop equal to those tracks. Yet, much of the rest sounds a little bit too much like an album going through the motions, hitting all the right references for vintage Seventies soul, from jazz flute to rich marinated verses, but for the personal touch that executes a great record. Home Again was charged with lofty things, but Withers’ Still Bill it most certainly is not.
On the upside, the label should realise what a prodigious talent Kiwanuka is and perhaps cut him some slack for a freer reign in the production process of his next album. Home Again did not conjure rave critical responses, and its commercial fate is unknown, but the strength of the appeal of an artist like Kiwanuka should not make numbers a problem for record bosses now. I don’t know what impact the artist had on the arrangements here but instincts tell me it would be surprising if Kiwanuka, with his gentle vocal style and immediate emotional proximity to the listener when alone, doesn't prefer little accompaniment; the maximum of, say, bass, a second guitar and brush drums.