There’s a sweeping, epic grandeur to ‘Cold Little Heart,’ the opening track on this, British-Ugandan singer/songwriter Michael Kiwanuka’s second album, that almost takes your breath away. The song begins slowly, almost ponderously; its musical backcloth steadily building and taking shape like a Charles Stepney arrangement on a ’70s Terry Callier record as a full orchestra, background vocals, and shards of distorted electric guitar all contribute to what is a cinematic piece of aural storytelling. It’s a good five minutes before a solid backbeat develops and Kiwanuka’s craggy vocal comes in and when it does, the key changes from minor to major and it feels like a sweet release.
It’s a hell of an impressive way to start an album but the next track elevates the music to an even higher level. Swooping orchestral strings add a cinematic dimension to ‘Love & Hate’s’ second track, the brilliant single, ‘Black Man In A White World,’ but the overall sound is more minimalistic, propelled by the relentless beat of omnipresent handclaps and a driving acoustic guitar. The chorus is as infectious as a deadly virus and its message of alienation in a racially-polarised world is a potent one.
‘Love & Hate’ never quite reaches the same giddy heights again but that’s because Kiwanuka has set an impossibly high bar for himself with the brilliance of his first two tracks. Having said, that, the rest of the album can’t be easily dismissed and there are some very good songs among the eight remaining tracks. The title song is both mesmerising and haunting with its chanted background vocals and filmic orchestration. Its message of staying strong and resolute in the face of hostility resonates for us all in these troubled and uncertain times.
More upbeat is ‘One More Night,’ which, flecked with horns and riding on a solid groove, has an old school soul vibe while ‘Falling’ is a slow, hurt-filled meditation on the psychological wounds sustained during a failed love affair. The pain in Kiwanuka’s voice, which is framed by organ, guitar, choir and strings, is almost palpable. It’s grand, certainly, but doesn’t have the majesty of ‘Cold Little Heart’ but overall, ‘Love & Hate’ is a tremendous, and sometimes stunning, album and shows that the 29-year-old troubadour from Muswell Hill is more than living up to the promise of his 2012 debut LP, ‘Home Again.’ Mightily impressive.