With his 2012 debut Home Again, Michael Kiwanuka established himself as the exciting new sound of soul, reacquainting a sizeable audience (he reached number 4 on the UK album charts) with the appeal of a deep, melancholy voice and atmospheric instrumentals. Four years later he has returned with his latest offering, Love & Hate, an iconic, minimalistic title that at once appears more mature than the whimsical Home Again.
One of the most instantly recognisable features of the album is the length of it’s tracks; opener Cold Little Heart clocks in at just over ten minutes in length, an indulgent introduction to the richness of Kiwanuka’s second record. Resounding piano chords and strings ring out in the opening seconds, soon joined by female backing vocals, remaining at a basic level for a long moment before dying into and eerie guitar section and then swelling into a triumphant instrumental, in which all the previous elements come together. Kiwanuka’s gravelly vocals are introduced after over five minutes of introduction, lifting the song out of its daydream quality. “Maybe this time I can go far” he sings, lending an aspirational feel to the song, despite its cynical title.
The second track, Black Man In A White World opens with a decidedly different approach, featuring Kiwanuka’s voice in an impressively low register, initially singing a capella over hand clapping. This becomes reminiscent of a more stripped, folk-based sound than the opening track suggests, with an earthy vocal that paces through the medley, clashing against female backing singers. Third track Falling also emerges as markedly different to the two preceding songs, experimenting with synthetic, electronic sounds reminiscent even of artists such as The XX, far removed from what we would thus far expect from Kiwanuka. A resounding bass echoes underneath the track, which occupies a much darker lyrical space than the two opening tracks; he sings “right or wrong we’ve been through it all, can’t believe it’s all over now, understand that you’ll love again, what my friends say to me”. The tone of the album becomes noticeably more introspective and the lyrics more conversational, as though Kiwanuka is consciously revealing his most intimate thoughts to his listeners. The song is peppered with strange melodies that appear jarring which, though not as pleasant sonically as they could be, add to the overall effect of alienation that Kiwanuka perpetuates throughout. This particularly comes into effect as he sings “don’t know why I stayed so long, always knew you’d let me down. I’m a man who stays alone, thought that was plain to see.” The song escalates toward a dramatic climax, heightening the drama of the album thus far as a whole and seeming more closely linked with the first track, rather than the track that precedes it, creating a strange sense of discontinuity throughout the section of the album.
Titular track Love & Hate appears at the midpoint of the album, featuring echoed guitars that develop into a full bodied work of instrumentation with a resounding beat and a sense of smoothness, accompanied by a defined piano medley. This is where Kiwanuka appears to find a sense of defiance and even a subtle anger, repeatedly singing “you can’t take me down, you can’t break me down.” There are times at which Kiwanuka may seem to stray into the realm of cliché in terms of lyrics, but this is compensated for by the strength of the music that backs him; a small electric guitar melody occurs towards the end of the song almost in isolation, capturing a snapshot of tender brilliance. This album seems to exist almost in these small moments of brilliance, even when the tracks themselves are at risk of disintegrating or becoming unmemorable, there remains a certain hook, perhaps a chord progression or harmony that keeps the listener invested in the process of heartbreak that Kiwanuka laments.
I’ll Never Love is a short song that provides a moment of respite from the constant intensity of the other songs. Beginning with a single jarring piano, the song swells in a small way into a fuller instrumentation, while still retaining its sense of quietness. “I’ll never love somebody” he almost moans, “I’ll never need somebody”, an obvious tone of pain striking through every syllable. Despite being the shortest track on the record it is perhaps one of the most intimate and moving moments Love & Hate has to offer as a whole, providing a moment of reflection distinct from the sometimes-overbearing chaos of instrumentation that characterises much of the rest of the album. The penultimate track Father’s Child signals a return to the soul roots of Kiwanuka’s sound, he has previously been liked to artists such as Bill Withers, and this influence can be easily seen throughout the song. Here the distortion that has played upon the instruments in other tracks is somewhat stripped away to create a more raw sound, once again emphasising a return to the roots of the genre that Kiwanuka operates within.
In an album so concerned with alienation and heartbreak, there is a clear demand for some kind of reconciliation by it’s end, and The Final Frame provides that closure. Though there are still ambiguous lyrics and a sense of melancholy, Kiwanuka sings “away we go”, hinting towards a form of relationship or community that has been absent from his other lyrics. The track has a distinctly bluesy feel to it, and yet retains a summery and whimsical feel, harking back perhaps to Kiwanuka’s debut album in what feels like a bout of nostalgia. Love & Hate could be described as an indulgent album; it revels in the stories of heartbreak and loneliness, it allows the music to flow powerfully through full bodies melodies, it displays Kiwanuka’s distinctive, earthy vocals in a polished manner. Despite it’s indulgences, it can sometimes feel as if something is missing, perhaps a more cohesive structure to the album which sometimes places itself at risk of simply fading from one song to a another similar one, particularly around the last third of the album. However, Kiwanuka has built an incredible sense of warmth throughout this record, that despite it’s cold dominant subject matter, should not be ignored. It is invigorated, intentional, and has the potential to gratify an audience looking for a bold, intimate voice such as his.