For all the music pumped out into the world every year, the amount of it that is truly profound—that seems to communicate on some deeper, almost intuitive level—is incredibly small. Michael Kiwanuka’s latest album comes close.
KIWANUKA is a breathtaking retro-futuristic hybrid of funk, soul, rock and folk that somehow exists in all of the past 50 years at once. It’s a tumultuous record, at once confessional and restive, and shot through with a quiet anguish. KIWANUKA is steeped in heartache, but its namesake isn’t mourning for himself—at least, not solely. Prompted in part by parsing his own relationship with his Ugandan-English heritage and the ways that non-white people are treated in predominantly white cultures, the singer is wrestling with disillusion verging on despair over the state of the world around him, where compassion and understanding are practically bygone virtues and cynical self-interest rules the day. Maybe you’ve noticed.
Kiwanuka’s resigned, world-weary tone suggests that he feels the impact of that jaundiced world acutely, as if he is bearing an impossible burden that he can’t seem to drop. “To die a hero / Is all that we know now,” he sings on “Hero,” and the dismay in his voice is obvious. Yet despite its bleak underpinnings, KIWANUKA is never a slog. Co-written with Danger Mouse and Inflo, who also shared production duties, the album is loaded with rich musical arrangements that emphasize guitars and piano, and often include layers of strings that lend an atmospheric touch. The orchestrations are particularly enveloping on “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love),” where strings seep up slowly around darksome piano as Kiwanuka sings in doleful tones about trying to keep feelings of sadness and fury at bay. Even with the string section, the song is spare and a little desolate, as if even the mercy Kiwanuka seeks to embrace won’t be enough to save him.
Elsewhere, chilly piano ripples through murmuring percussion and background noise on “Final Days,” before an almost-delicate drum part fades in and Kiwanuka croons fatalistic lyrics about living with regret as time—his own and the planet’s— runs out, while sweetly mournful strings swell up behind him.
There’s a livelier feel on “Rolling,” which skims along on a taut, springy bassline—a Danger Mouse specialty—and the snick of a tightly tuned snare drum, surrounded by rasping psychedelic fuzz-tone guitars that scuff and scrape at the ear. The song slides into the next track, “I’ve Been Dazed,” so seamlessly that they might as well be halves of the same whole. The latter song offers one of several flickers of hope on the album when Kiwanuka leads a chorus of backing voices in a call-and-response section that prescribes love and truth as solutions to the encroaching gloom. Love reins again on “Hard to Say Goodbye,” which opens with eddies of strings swirling around a ponderous four-note guitar line and columns of wordless backing vocals. After nearly two minutes, the whole arrangement recedes to leave Kiwanuka’s voice on its own, and new accompaniment grows around his vocals: acoustic guitar, then stately orchestrations and backing vocals, topped with a grainy guitar riff that seems to represent the roiling emotion underneath the elegant surface of the song.
Roiling emotions are a theme on KIWANUKA: He mentions crying in multiple songs, and sings as though he’s wrung out on several more. Yet the record represents a kind of existential journey, and by the end, Kiwanuka has shed at least some of the self-doubt and grief that were weighing on him. “All my fears are gone, baby, gone gone,” he sings, and even his voice sounds lighter and less burdened. It’s a redemptive way to close an album that could have been a grueling downer from start to finish. Instead, it’s a testament to perseverance, determination and a vivid creative imagination from an artist who seems to have finally found himself, and that’s profound enough.