2012 – Home Again (Polydor)
Michael Kiwanuka is a guitar-playin' English singer-songwriter. He grew up in north London. After working as a session guitarist, Michael turned "solo" and started singing his own tunes. He opened for Adele in 2011, and in the same year signed with Polydor Records. A couple of well-received EPs in the UK were followed by his first album, 2012's Home Again, recorded and released when Michael was 24 years old. It was produced by Paul Butler — himself a multi-instrumentalist — of indie-band The Bees.
At this point, I want to say how much I loved this album back in 2012. It really knocked my socks off, and still does, although Michael would do better. At the time, Home Again was like a breath of fresh but familiar air — bright and strong melodies, soulful (but not overly mannered) singing, acoustic strings with tasteful arrangements, interesting and accessible lyrics. Michael's music was often compared to Bill Withers' from the 1970s. I can certainly hear that, and American pop-soul is something that evidently influenced him, but in interviews he also talks about growing up listening to Nirvana and many other rock, pop, soul, and jazz groups, which perhaps gives greater evidence of his musical breadth.
Opening track "Tell Me a Tale" is a great one. The orchestrations that will appear all over this record are put to good effect here, but it's the jazzy touches that really elevate the sound of this track. Flutes, trumpet, and baritone-sax (the latter two played by producer Butler) put us almost in Van Morrison-esque territory, but with a very different style of singer. On that point, I really love Michael Kiwanuka's voice. It never sounds inauthentic, but also never sounds like he's straining or trying too hard. I wish more singers with soulful voices would sing a bit restrained like this. Less is sometimes more. This composition is mid-tempo and melodically simple, but easy on the ears and tasteful. He's off to a good start.
"I'm Getting Ready" was my favorite song of 2012, and one of my favorites this century. Michael plays electric and acoustic guitars and the bass on this track; there's also more string accompaniment (violins, flutes). But that accompaniment is very subtle, and the whole track is just very well produced. It all whips by in just over two minutes, so pay attention. This song has a beautiful melody and vocal, with lyrics of spiritual longing. What is he getting ready to do? To believe... in what? Don't know exactly, which is fabulously evocative. This song lingers in the memory, like the fresh scent of a particularly lucid spring morning.
Next is "I'll Get Along". This is perhaps the most Bill Withers-like song on Home Again. It also has the purest and catchiest melody of all the songs here. The lyrics are simple, the emotion breezy and cheerful. He seems to telling someone: "Sorry I bolted and didn't tell anyone my plan. But it's cool; I know what I'm doing." And, yes, I believe you do, Michael. When a fellow writes and sings a song this good, I'm inclined to take his word for things. This track is just bliss (see? Nirvana again).
"Rest" is the fourth track, and it's rather slow and minimally arranged. A nice electric guitar part introduces it and buffers the tune, throughout. In the bridges, synths and cellos appear to add excitement. Lyrically, Michael is again telling us that he "ain't in no hurry... at all", and that we can rest our head on his shoulders (yeah, that sounds a bit like "Lean On Me"... hey, he does like Bill Withers!). Michael Kiwanuka just comes off as a really nice guy, and this is another nice track, though maybe a bit less impressive than the preceding three.
"Home Again", the title song, was the first single from this album, and crept into the UK top-30, giving Michael his first large-scale exposure (inexplicably, it seems to have been a rather big hit in Belgium... "a big record just broke in Belgium!" "I'll Get Along" was big there, too). The song is built around a simple but intricate acoustic part, but it's the vocals that really strike you. Michael sings that one day he'll "feel home again" and "feel strong again", but also that he'll close his eyes, he "won't look behind", and that he's "moving on again". It seems he's saying that we all have to keep moving, but also that we all come back to where we started.
"Bones" has a cute arrangement that's a bit 1950s, and a bit vaudeville (the percussive shakers — so listed in the CD booklet — are very audible). Lyrically, we've finally got a pretty much straightforward love song. Michael "long(s) to be alone with you", and if he couldn't, then "without you (he's) just bones". A bit of a lesser song, but it's nice at that point to hear him lighten up and be a bit cute. (However, if they wanted to change it up a bit, I think this song could have been a bit faster in tempo. It still kind of too-easily blends in with the mid-tempo vibe of the rest of the record. But no harm done.)
I quite like "Always Waiting". Built around another Kiwanukian acoustic guitar part and the instrumental approach you're by now expecting, this track nevertheless has a different vibe from the five serious ones in the record's first half. I don't know why, exactly — it just creates a different mood. The breaks between lyrical parts are filled with swells of violin and non-lexical vocal harmonies that are very effective. Lyrically, Michael is still waiting for something. He sings that "my time is coming", and of yearning, longing, and breaking through. Home Again, lyrically, is chock-full of references to expectations of time, of destiny waiting to be filled, and of preparation for something. Maybe he was projecting about his potential future as a music-industry star? Dunno.
"I Won't Lie" is just awesome, and one of this album's highlights. The arrangement is superb, and again Paul Butler is all over this track, playing numerous instruments, as he does on many of this record's songs. We're in mid-tempo again, but the dynamics of the track allow it to ebb and flow. Some clarinet, violin, and sax push the more dramatic moments along. Lyrically, Michael is asking for help from someone ("brother"), so he can get from here to there (expectation and preparation, again). He "can't seem to get there all alone", so he needs this person to hear him. And if he listens, Michael... won't... lie. Sounds like he wants to unburden himself in order to free himself. I can relate. The best thing of all, though, is again Michael's vocal. This song is all kinds of great.
"Any Day Will Do Fine" is okay. Honestly, this song is relatively forgettable. Nothing bad, mind you, but a weaker tune than the standard set by the other tracks, so it doesn't linger in the mind. Suffers from the penultimate track syndrome.
Finally, "Worry Walks Beside Me" is a solid, if downbeat, closer. Worry walks beside Michael "every day", and it's coming his way (yet more references to expectations and destiny). The "What will it take...?" refrains are interesting melodically, and the vocal is very soulful and impressive. Not one of his stronger compositions, but it works quite well enough as the ending.
So, there you have it — my short rave about Home Again. By building off of acoustic guitar riffs, Michael Kiwanuka composed some very good tunes. By collaborating in the studio with Paul Butler (who is almost like the co-artist here), he recorded a fab first album. "I'm Getting Ready", "I'll Get Along", "Home Again", and "I Won't Lie" are among my favorite songs in many years. Hear them. All this record's songs are tuneful and fairly short, which makes any album easier to like. I can't really imagine anyone disliking the sound or style of this album. Fully deserving of a Regan rave!
I notice, too, that I spent more time than I had expected discussing the lyrics to this record. So, there's more to Michael Kiwanuka than just his soulful voice and his guitar.
If there's any criticism of this record, it's that it's a bit too mid-tempo and a bit "every-song-sounds-the-same". (This is not uncommon for young artists on their first long-player, of course.) Michael Kiwanuka is a smart guy, however, and recognized this matter, which is addressed on his second album. But that's a rave for another time....