Since Michael Kiwanuka’s debut, Home Again, which retrofit his gruff, doleful voice to a number of well-loved and well-passed styles of R&B, the singer-songwriter has admittedly struggled to find a unique sound of his own. His ambitious follow-up, Love and Hate, is the outgrowth of a few years of searching, as well as a strategic teaming with producer Brian Burton (a.k.a. Danger Mouse). Besides reducing Home Again to an episode of music-industry image-making, the album experiments with giving Kiwanuka—whose voice can lend natural emotion to the most banal of lyrics, as was the case on his debut—something to say.
The pairing mostly works: Love & Hate mines new stylistic ground for Kiwanuka, but Burton’s production—while lending the set cohesion and flow—simply serves to prove Kiwanuka an even more talented and versatile imitator. Previously, the artist’s aching vocals and busy, bluesy arrangements earned comparisons to Curtis Mayfield and Van Morrison; Love & Hate finds touchpoints instead in the astral leg-stretching of Pink Floyd and the political exasperation of Marvin Gaye. The resulting sound is prog soul with messages of incredible urgency at its heart, rendered by Kiwanuka and his band with emotion and grandeur. It makes for a weighty and dead-serious album, but it also mistakes the mere mention of exhaustive themes (abandonment, exclusion, regret) for an exploration of them.
The opening track, “Cold Little Heart,” is an immediate statement of purpose, as well as a counter to any notion of Kiwanuka as a simple repackaging of nostalgic soul. The track is composed as a 10-minute suite of two distinct, if equally elegiac, parts, with Kiwanuka toggling between Harrison and Hendrix with his wailing guitar and channeling Bill Withers with a questioning, quaking vocal. Burton, meanwhile, fills space with what sounds like a decade of studio sentimentality: quivering Motown strings, five separate background choirs, troubadour acoustic guitar, jazz piano, and psychedelic organ. One gets the sense that even Phil Spector, upon hearing the song’s labored production, would beg for mercy. Two other tracks pass the seven-minute mark, and others bear the type of melodramatic titles (“I’ll Never Love,” “Father’s Child”) that predict either transcendence or schmaltz.
Yet despite this intensity and spectacle, it’s most often Kiwanuka’s stirring voice and searching guitar that tie everything together, both humanizing the more ambitious material and, on tracks like the straightforward road tune “One More Night,” punching up the formula. Kiwanuka’s vocal on “Falling,” which sounds like a man who can do nothing about the condition he’s in, saves the track from being a Broken Bells retread (it sounds suspiciously similar to “The High Road”), and the stripped-down intro to “Rule the World” is much more captivating than the song’s overcooked backend. Burton does work in a few indelible moments, like the molten funk of when drums come in on “I’ll Never Love,” but his tendency toward the epic and anthemic can blur Kiwanuka’s best efforts at homespun blues.
Still, Love and Hate doesn’t reach the lyrical depths that its song titles and grandiose productions suggest. The title track, which recalls Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” purports to deliver the album’s central message, but Kiwanuka trades in clichés: “Love and hate,” he sings, “How much more are we supposed to tolerate?” “Black Man in a White World” spins an incredibly timely and crucial tale, yet the combination of Kiwanuka’s obvious lines (“I’ve been low/I’ve been high,” he starts) with a predictable stomp makes it one of the least interesting songs here.
It’s “Father’s Child” where Kiwanuka’s introspective lyrics perfectly match Burton’s restraint as a producer, with music-box piano steadying the song’s two-step march as it navigates through confessional verses, swirling and psychedelic choruses, and a sweltering extended outro. Here and on more tempered moments throughout the album, Kiwanuka avoids simply rehashing bygone styles, instead creating a personal and imaginative sound.
Love & Hate shows lateral growth in its procession of art-rock odysseys and more standard fare, and proof that Kiwanuka can wield power over a number of arrangements, even dense ones. At its best, its world of moving sounds and parts plays second to the grit in Kiwanuka’s voice—that of a man who’s seemingly witnessed injustice across several centuries, and is returning with the dismal news that little has changed.