Despite becoming a genre-busting mainstay over the past seven years in his native U.K., psychedelic-soul singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka has heretofore remained a relatively anonymous television soundtrack staple in the States, with nary an indie hit to his name. Most fans here know him, if they know him at all, as the singer of Big Little Lies’ theme song “Cold Little Heart.”
That should change with Kiwanuka. His third offering is his most fully-formed work, a meditative, expansive collection of synth-psych, blues-rock, stately folk that amounts to an early-career opus for the 32 year-old singer-songwriter. The LP is his second full-length record with co-producers Danger Mouse and Inflo, switching between easy melody (“Hero”), meandering Pink Floyd ruminations (“Hard to Say Goodbye”), and crisp seventies easy-listening pastiche (“Living in Denial”). Songs like “Final Days” evoke the adventurous Seventies r&b explorations of Stevie Wonder, while “Piano Joint (This Kind of Love)” conjures the down-to-earth singer-songwriter songcraft of Bill Withers.
With its carefully-crafted sequencing and seamless interludes, Kiwanuka feels like a proper old-fashioned album constructed as such, with some of its brightest highlights buried deep into the record’s latter half. See “Higher Ground,” a whispering ballad that finds him grasping for stability in an uncertain world. The album is full of such moments, where politics subtly find their way into Kiwanuka’s personal pleas without ever overcrowding the narrative. “Hero,” a grieving lament to a fallen friend, tackles racially-motivated police violence; On “I’ve Been Dazed,” Kiwanuka uses a call-and-response coda to toggle between between personal plea and anthemic prayer.
At his best, Kiwanuka foregrounds the dizzying breadth of his influences, refusing, at all costs, to play for cheap soul thrills. “It’s not enough just to cause a reaction/Who you trying to please?” he asks halfway through. “No applause comes before satisfaction/Say what you mean.”