On his first two albums, Michael Kiwanuka reached into the inquisitive and easy-riding soulful side of the 1970s, and then the rightfully and righteously angry flipside: a man not quite in any one place physically or spiritually but on the search.
Each style had a place, and each in their own way reflected his time and state of mind as much as the decade whose music it drew on.
Their stories were practically told in their titles, Home Again and Love & Hate; their inner pull was captured in lines from the principal singles: “Many times I’ve been told, speak your mind, just be bold/So I close my eyes, look behind, moving on, moving on” (from Home Again) and “I’m in love but I’m still sad/I’ve found peace but I’m not glad/All my nights and all my days/I’ve been trying the wrong way … I’m a black man in a white world.” (Black Man In A White World).
Kiwanuka’s self-titled third album doesn’t stray from the period – if you were told this had come out in 1972 you’d not argue - but it plumbs a deeper and more emotionally complex state of being in its rhythmic but restrained deep grooves.
Herein are anger and sorrows, fortitude and hope, refusal to let sins and blows go unacknowledged, but an understanding that how you make that acknowledgement will affect your life. So, yes, there is a core of sadness, but its cast without bitterness.
This is a reflection of his time and place, sure, but also our time and place with police violence, immigration, exclusion generally explored in its lyrics. It is an album where you can look as far in as you want and be confronted, but you can also ride on the incredibly attractive textures alone and find your comfort. Best of all, you can do both.
Which is why, musically and spiritually – maybe captured best in the song title Interlude (Loving The People) - its antecedents are quite clearly Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway and Gladys Knight.
In Piano Joint (This Kind Of Love), which curls itself around a simple piano figure even as the sound thickens with bass and strings; in Living In Denial, a loping rhythm intersecting with an almost bubblegum backing vocal; in You Ain’t The Problem, a low-impact but insistent party starter; and in the long elaborations of Hard To Say Goodbye, which is both languid and lightly psychedelic – Kiwanuka roots the songs in warmth even as they prick any self-satisfaction with some simple truths.
Elsewhere the tenor is not so easily fixed. In Final Days, Kiwanuka pushes the potential of complacency beneath a scratchy background of distorted voices, a fluid bassline Sade would recognise, and the hint of a late-arriving chorister. In the swinging, modified blues twang of Rolling, which feels more like London circa the Jimi Hendrix Explosion than Detroit, there’s an edge to proceedings even as Kiwanuka’s voice is mixed back to blur the lyrical lines.
Then if Solid Ground lays out a stark – muted strings, nibbling synth – landscape that blossoms as the song approaches the three minute mark into a fuller but still grey-zoned atmosphere, Light finishes the album with a cast of illumination from the choir stalls and a swelling tug of the heart to clear the way for optimism.
“All of my fears are gone baby/Gone, gone,” Kiwanuka sings, before a guitar solo of limpid grace reinforces it. It’s not true, of course, but it’s a start, and that can be enough.