Now that Adele is putting the screws to the human race with her music piped in all over the world, even driving the great Karl Lagerfeld up the wall (the merciless fashion giant didn't think twice about calling her a fatty), what's missing in that whole curious soul-pop revival that has taken the western world like some kind of strain of the flu is a greater masculine presence. Maybe that's why Michael Kiwanuka has been hyped to such an extent, even though he only had three EPs out on Communion Records before signing with Polydor. The promptness with which the show biz world adopted the singer shouldn't come as a surprise. Opening for Adele landed the British soul man a considerable, possibly not-entirely-justified upgrade. Of course, getting the prestigious BBC Sound 2012 award for best newcomer also helped his star to rise. And don't be fooled by his name, either. Behind the Mazinger Z name stands a black man with a London accent and a voice that sounds more like Sam Cooke than like Professor Juzo Kabuto.
Anchored in the contemplative soul of yesteryear, Kiwanuka isn't trying to mislead anyone. Even on the attractive record sleeve (if they had shown it to me saying it was an album from 1971, I would have believed it) it's obvious this man is retro all the way. And nobody will stop him, either. He has the quality for it. Apart from the vintage image, he's blessed with a classic vocal register made in the same place people like Otis Redding and Bill Withers come from. The north London singer and guitarist moves exclusively in the twilight registers, drenching his repertoire in a soothing brew of the kind of soul and folk from the sixties and seventies where Afro hairdos, velvet guitars and sensitive throats were king.
He does it with astonishing calm, almost sleepily. It's all a bit too slow and sweet, if you ask me. Lots of acoustic guitars and spiritual melodies ( “I’m Getting Ready” and “Home Again” are soothing for the soul), as well as silky mid-tempos from the Redding school ( “I’ll Get Along”). All the vital elements of romantic soul are on this record, from melancholic pieces seemingly recorded on a hot summer afternoon ( “Worry Walks Beside Me” and “Rest” are perfect for endearing you to your partner) to funkier pieces like the delicious album opener “Tell Me A Tale”. And among all of the predictable nods to the past you can even find some hidden gems that give Kiwanuka a serious chance to survive the hype. The intoxicating doo wop, the irresistible drum brushes and the crooner inflections of the brilliant “Bones” show this singer needs more balls and fewer ballads. We'll wait here sittin' on the dock of the bay.