It’s been four years since debut record Home Again drew comparisons with the likes of Bill Withers and Jack Johnson for Muswell Hillbilly Michael Kiwanuka. Breezy upbeat songs like ‘Home Again’ and ‘I’ll Get Along’ suggested a new troubadour had come to claim his fair share of smiling, bobbing heads and tapping toes. Kiwanuka’s sophomore record Love & Hate puts that theory to bed with a stern lecture about the perils of presumptuousness ringing in its ears.
Ringing ears is an emerging theme on this record as the Londoner resurrects Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel through his emotive guitar playing. The album opens with ‘Cold Little Heart’, a ten minute opus reminiscent of Hazel’s immortal ‘Maggot Brain’. Kiwanuka’s voice is as soulful as ever, only the emotion has changed. Most of the lyrics on this record are quite self-effacing, wrought with a forlorn pessimism.
The album was produced by Dangermouse who leaves so much space on the record, the drums sound like they’ve been recorded alone in a black hole. Other elements weave around the backbone of the rhythm section creating a real flowing quality throughout.
‘Black Man in a White World’ evokes Leadbelly’s ‘Black Betty’ – all handclaps and Curtis Mayfield guitar as Kiwanuka’s powerful vocal propels him into the role of great modern soul singer. With so many identikit singers and vocal gymnasts around it’s his tone and character that set him apart.
‘Falling’ is a hopeless piano led ballad lamenting the futility of certain relationships. Similar themes laden this record down with an emotional depth that can only truly be appreciated when aurally ingested whole, the old fashioned way. Not that there are any weak songs but the Homeric glory of Love & Hate can only be fully appreciated as one flowing piece.
The title track is the most obvious Dangermouse-ism, a backing track more recognisably hip-hop is straddled for seven minutes by Kiwanuka who steers it his on way. ‘Fathers Child’ is another seven minute song built on a driving hi-hat shuffle and a couple of simple piano notes before that guitar comes in to inject a painfully beautiful sense of longing for paternal love.
The lyrical theme suggests someone who may be struggling with their identity, bogged down by the heavy emotional toll some relationships can take. On ‘I’ll Never Love’ he sings the line “A troubled song in the moonlight will be my bride”. Despondent anguish lulls you into a forlorn sorrow, then last song ‘The Final Frame’ kicks in with the record’s lightest vocal. Kiwanuka sings “It’s too late to run away”, a waltz for the last two people in the dancehall. Joyous abandon fires the last guitar notes from the record, it feels like one long journey. A tumultuous period in a relationship resolved at last.