Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate

I’ve got a dear and longtime friend who, on occasion, doesn’t just recommend me music, but actually gifts me records, confident that they’ll go appreciated. He’s almost always right, too, which either means we have overlapping tastes or I’m painfully predictable.

A couple of years back, he gave me a brand new copy of Michael Kiwanuka’s Home Again. I had no expectations—I didn’t know Kiwanuka or his music—but Dave had heard the first song on the album, the 70s soul- and fusion- inspired “Tell Me A Tale”, and was confident. Later he emailed to apologize to me, because the rest of the album wasn’t at all like the lead track. I told him there was no reason; Home Again was already on regular rotation, a beautiful and otherwise consistent record with a meditative quality. Its production values leaned on classic recordings, but many of Kiwanuka’s songwriting sensibilities were contemporary. His voice and guitar work were contained but in that great way that suggests a rich emotional landscape. It was perfect music for making dinner, or having your third cup of coffee on a weekend morning.

Now it’s a few years later, and I have a few more expectations. Love and Hate is his follow-up, and instead of trying to recapture what he did so well on the first record, Kiwanuka smartly pushes himself into new territory. On a song-by-song basis, this record has some real stand-out tracks, but it struggles to cohere into an album.

Love and Hate moves away from the quiet, acoustic-heavy production of his first album and toward some real over-the-top arrangements: loads of strings, a choir, reverb coming out the wazoo, and even some phaser for good measure. Something about the phaser and the half-time drums in the opening track, combined with the long instrumental introduction, makes me think of Pink Floyd, not exactly my first thought when it comes to soulful music but there you have it.

Side A leans on the epics, with two long, theme-defining tracks (“Cold Little Heart” and the title track). In between there are some great, catchy songs, in particular “Black Man in a White World”, which tricks listeners into thinking it’s a simple, rhythmic, purely contemporary track, but then becomes more distinctly 70s as it goes.

If Side A is showy and obvious, then Side B is the half that rewards repeated listenings. It starts with (in my opinion) the best candidate for a single on the record, “One More Night”, and then descends into some fantastically subdued, thoughtful tracks. Kiwanuka could have rested on the songwriting chops from the first album, leaned into his simple major- and minor- key structures, but instead moves away, adds some odd but powerful chord choices, that highlight the unease and conflict that’s present in his lyrics. “Rule the World” and “Father’s Child” both go all sorts of places and each movement feels earned. But it’s really “I’ll Never Love”, the most introspective, mellow, and intense song that wins my heart. It’s rare that I listen to a song on repeat, but I keep coming back to this one.

Just listen to that vocal performance. Listen to how the arrangement perfectly complements the mood and movements of the song structure. If he had been able to capture this feel for an entire album, I might have died (in the good way).

Instead, it feels like he tries to capture too many production styles. Those two great tracks I mentioned, “Rule the World” and “Father’s Child”, are so vastly different in terms of production that they might as well have been on different records. On the first, the drums are degraded and have that 60s feel, and on the second they’re clean and robotic. Instrumentation moves around on the album, Kiwanuka’s voice gets a different treatment on each song, and it ends up feeling like a best-of album instead of a single record with a unified message.

I recognize that we live in an era where people don’t listen to records as much as songs, and where production can change vastly across an album. But it’s not my thing. I think of the best unit of music as the album, not the song, and thus I want albums to feel cohesive and complementary, to contain a single story or message that requires many songs to tell.

Many of the songs of Love and Hate are wonderful when taken on their own, but I’m a little disappointed in it as a record. Still, there’s lots to love here, and almost nothing to hate.