Michael Kiwanuka "Home Again"

A young U.K. musician channels legacy soul artist on his stunning debut

With the opening flourishes of Michael Kiwanuka’s debut you’ll know you’re in for something special and rare. As “Tell Me a Tale” begins, bird-like flutes flutter delicately around gently strummed guitar and snared percussion. Horns and strings enter, and then that glorious voice emerges, singing lyrics full of passion and longing. A young man, a son of immigrant parents, examines his roots in order to understand his place in society. Home Again revolves on an axis of soul, R&B, and folk influences. Gil Scott Heron, Bill Withers, Otis Redding inform the work of this young man, as well as nods toward folk icons Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and John Martyn.

Kiwanuka set out to become a studio musician. In that role it is important to have a broad understanding of multiple genres. Based on the variety displayed in his songwriting, it’s evident he’s done his homework. Pouring through a Dylan box set, Kiwanuka came to appreciate the craft of songwriting. Otis Redding’s vocals brought a greater appreciation of the power of the human voice. Kiwanuka began playing jam sessions in local clubs and quietly writing at home. After coming to the attention of Paul Butler of The Bees, he received an invitation to record at the band’s studio.

Home Again offers surprisingly sophisticated songs, particularly coming from a debut performance. Beautiful melodies are buoyed by thoughtful lyrics. Arrangements are intricate, placing attention on the delicate balance between the varying instruments. A sense of tradition weaves through the session, galvanized by Kiwanuka’s captivating vocals. The 24 year old sings with the voice of an old soul, his rich tenor conveying depths of emotions from melancholy to deep longing.

As the son of immigrant parents who fled Uganda during the regime of Idi Amin, Kiwanuka sings of displacement and identity. This is evident on the title track, and “Tell Me A Tale.” The inner turmoil of rootlessness is delivered with steely dignity. “I Won’t Lie” is a hymn to dedication and resilience. “Worry Walks Beside Me” weeps the wisdom that comes through struggle. “Bones” is a change of pace, a sweet love song with twinkling piano highlights and a backing chorus that sounds like it was lifted out of a 1962 Ray Charles recording session.

Home Again may be somber but it doesn’t weigh on the ear or heart. It’s strength lies in both the quality of the material, the performance of the musicians, and the detail put into the recording, mixing, and mastering of the disc. On this front Kiwanuka is backed by Producer/Mixer Paul Butler, Engineer Jon McMullen, with additional help from Dan Auerbach and Gus Seyfert.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix)