Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate
2 LPs – $24.99
Purchased at The Sound Garden in Syracuse, NY
Tidal strikes again.
Just a few weeks since I accidentally played The Avalanches' Wildflower on the streaming music service and discovered a mind-bending, sensibility-changing masterwork, I've done it a second time.
Hmmm…Michael Kiwanuka…wonder who this is, and what his music sounds like?
I pressed play. From the first few notes, Love & Hate sounded incredible and instantly engaging with its full orchestral arrangements, dreamy guitar riffs and a deep sense of soul—sort of like Otis Redding and David Gilmour got together and listened to What's Goin' On over and over and then, deeply inspired, hit the studio. I subsequently listened to every track on this album, transfixed, wondering which path the next song would take. This music had the impression of being fully developed and realized, and executed with a deep sense of commitment from this thoughtful, intelligent singer. There are ten songs on this album, and you take ten unique journeys.
So I did the same thing I did with Wildflower—I wasted no time and immediately headed down to the local record store to find out if it was available on LP. It was. Michael Kiwanuka's Love & Hate has been spinning on my turntable ever since.
The big question is this: who is Michael Kiwanuka and how come I haven't heard of him until now? Well, for starters this British soul singer is only 29 years old and this is only his second album. His first album, 2012's Home Again, was released to good reviews but it flew under my radar. (I've streamed it on Tidal since and it's a fun album, albeit less ambitious, so it probably wouldn't have made the same deep emotional impact if I had listened to it first.) The only unusual item listed in his bio is that Kiwanuka's parents fled Uganda while Idi Amin was in power—I'm not sure if that particular past informs the sorrowful tone that runs through much of music, but it is an interesting factoid. Whatever life he has lived, it's present in every note of his music. All of the experiences and all of the influences breathe as a distinct musical instrument in each song.
As I've already implied, Love & Hate starts off big. "Cold Little Heart," at well over ten minutes in length, is split up into several sections so that it almost sounds like three or four separate songs until you hear the same melancholy themes linking the sections together. Kiwanuke's gentle, somewhat sleepy guitar riff evokes the David Gilmour comparisons, even with the classic Motown embellishments – every note is carefully chosen and extended until it blossoms with meaning. He sets the tone with the opening lines, "Did you ever want it? Did you want it bad? Oh my, it tears me apart." By the time you arrive at the song's gentle conclusion you feel as if you've been told a beautiful, epic story with this bittersweet ending: "Maybe this time I can be strong."
Kiwanuke immediately shifts gears in an auspicious way with "Black Man in a White World," which sounds like both a lost classic from Sam Cooke's later years and a cover of something that just missed getting into There's a Riot Goin'. It's beautiful and angry and danceable all at once. "Place I Belong" takes you back to the late '60s or early '70s, right into a humid and languorous evening in Harlem where everyone's trying to stay cool but they might be persuaded to venture out into the streets where the action is. Kiwanuka, accompanied by his quietly varied guitar sounds and his huge, expressive voice, is a master of vivid settings.
Once you hit the title track, hold on. Paraphrasing the iconic beat from "Mercy Mercy Me," the catchy bu-BAH-bu-du-duh backing vocals burrow into your head and set you up for one of those glorious, beautiful and memorable songs that used to be so common thirty or forty years ago. Are there any great songs left? Yes, and here it is with all of the necessary urgency. It's the first single from the album, and in a perfect world it would be a monster hit. Thirty or forty years ago, that would be a foregone conclusion.
For all this heartache and seriousness, Kiwanuka can be upbeat and full of energy as well with such songs as the horn-driven "One More Night," which turns out to be an excellent driving song, and the bluesy "The Final Frame" with its fuzzy distorted lead guitar showing off Kiwanuka's chops. But the overall message of Love & Hate resonates in the same exact way as What's Goin On' did more than 45 years ago—what are we doing to ourselves, and how can we stop? It's a capricious thing to compare this new album to Marvin Gaye's masterpiece, a flowing and conjoined river of songs that I've held close to my heart for decades. But clever and challenging music can only take you so far – sometimes you just need someone to look you in the eyes and tell you that everything's going to be okay as long as we're kind and we stick together.
That's how powerful this album is.