The London singer-songwriter's Danger Mouse and Inflo-produced latest feels like an easy listen at first, but eventually reveals its mournful and even despairing heart.“All I want is to talk to you,” Michael Kiwanuka sings on “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love),” as if the “you” had heard otherwise. Intimacy, for him, is fraught, full of potential traps. Anxiety pervades the London singer-songwriter’s third album, but he emerges a stronger artist, thanks to panoramic production by collaborators Danger Mouse and Inflo. What on first or even third spin unfolds as an easy listen eventually reveals itself as a mournful and often despairing work: an album by an artist willing himself to believe people will offer the hope that institutions can’t but steeling himself for disappointment just in case. Doubt is his muse—and burden.
In the three years sinceLove & Hate, Kiwanuka’s popularity has only grown— the HBO miniseriesBig Little Liespicked up that album’s “Cold Little Heart” as its theme song. His take on soul proceeds from the fuzzed-out serrated explorations ofthe Temptations’ psychedelic eraand Terence Trent D’Arbyat his most communal. Better still is his voice, which mixesSolomon Burke’sslow-burn urgency withJohn Hiatt’sgulp.
Kiwanukamirrors Markeidric Walker’s cover art: grand, regal in its confidence, faintly androgynous. Its best songs are as direct as Kiwanuka’s gaze. The synth-anchored “Solid Ground” almost chokes on its anguish until the strings offer solace. “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)” presents itself as a prayer in an empty room. “Living in Denial,” change tempos and chords after a couple of exploratory minutes; Kiwanuka treats songs like ecosystems that stretch and flower after sunlight and soil tilling.
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