Michael Kiwanuka at Park West | Concert preview
Soul throwback plays it safe on his debut.
Today in tired narratives: Twentysomething British singer with a voice “aged beyond its years” makes “timeless” vintage soul music. Still, we’ll give props to Michael Kiwanuka, who could’ve defined himself by a more contemporary standard. Instead, the Londoner made the shrewd move to tour with Adele, pop’s reigning queen of Timeless Soulfulness. That was 2011. Earlier this year, Kiwanuka beat out Frank Ocean and Skrillex in the BBC’s Sound of 2012 poll (Adele won in ’08) and went on to collaborate with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, a newfound fan.
Home Again, his debut LP, begins promisingly with the single “Tell Me a Tale,” one of those songs that’s weird to listen to on iTunes. From the first flutters of jazz flute to the way Kiwanuka croons “Lord, I need loving” in a warm, Bill Withers–esque rumble, it’s all so throwback it feels as though it should only exist on vinyl.
Alas, the dusty swagger doesn’t last. By track four, “Rest,” he’s treading into sleepy adult-contempo territory with a folksy vocal delivery more reminiscent of David Gray than David Ruffin. The ballad “Worry Walks Beside Me” could’ve been a big, brassy torch song to rouse the drowsy listener if only Kiwanuka had brought more verve and emotional nuance. There are welcome moments of reprieve from the overall smoothness, when that rich baritone breaks ever so slightly to reveal his true potential, but mostly he’s playing it safe.