Sound — 8
It's only been a handful of years ago since Michael Kiwanuka broke out from the peripheral musicianship of being a session guitarist for Bashy and Chipmunk and tended to his own solo career. Releasing two EPs in 2011, that same year would also propel him into popularity after touring as the opening act for Adele, gaining him much more attention prior to releasing his 2012 debut album, "Home Again." Though Kiwanuka's style of revamped vintage soul from the 1970s was more emulative than innovative - clearly taking inspiration from classic acts like Randy Newman, Bill Withers and Otis Redding - it still earned him well acclaim from critics nevertheless.
Now bringing forth his follow-up album, "Love & Hate," Kiwanuka reaches for a stronger sonic presence all across the board. Compared to the songwriting in his debut album, which was more contained, gentle and concise, Kiwanuka's songwriting goes for more elaboration and variation. He fancies himself an electric guitar more than his acoustic this time around, playing with a watery leslie effect in the moody "Falling," and taking a page from Jeff Beck in the bluesy riffing of "The Final Frame." String sections also become more prominent throughout the album, heard in the ambitious, long-running opener "Cold Little Heart," and "Father's Child," which, along with its piano melody and light drumbeat, could reasonably fit on Radiohead's "A Moon Shaped Pool." And Kiwanuka threads these two elements together in the eponymous song, where the fuzzy grit of his guitar solo cooperates nicely with the rich, organic timbre of the strings running alongside.
The vocal force in "Love & Hate" also kicks things up a notch from Kiwanuka's previous album. Being a contrast to his lyrical matter of loneliness (more on that later), Kiwanuka is oftentimes accompanied with gospel-inspired backup singers and choirs, with their chants bolstering the energy of the upbeat "Black Man in a White World" and the steady "One More Night," and establishing a sense of hope in the crestfallen arrangements in "Place I Belong" and "Rule the World." But though the album increases in size and power in numerous ways, Kiwanuka still takes a moment to tap back into his gentle fragility in "I'll Never Love," where his lonesome vocals tread delicately on top of a morose Rhodes piano melody.
Lyrics — 7
With Kiwanuka's lyrics in "Home Again" being a series of introspection towards his own insecurities and his connections with friends, family and God, his lyrics in "Love & Hate" focus more upon his ranging difficulties with maintaining relationships. Kiwanuka parses through the numerous moments where love did him wrong (in "Falling" and the eponymous song), and more honestly, when he did love wrong (in "Cold Little Heart," "I'll Never Love" and "The Final Frame"). This inability to love ties back to the solitary nature that Kiwanuka had detailed in the previous album, but he shares how agonizing that solitary nature can be in the hope-for-better-days message of "One More Night" ("I'll be holding on / And holding in / One more night / One more night 'til the morning"). And in spite of his own shortcomings that he's used to dealing with, his true hope is to finally break and reach that love he's sought after, heard in "Rule the World" ("Show me love, show me happiness / I can't do this on my own") and "Father's Child" ("I've been searching for miles and miles / Looking for someone to walk with me").
Overall Impression — 8
While Kiwanuka still sticks strongly to his emulation of the golden era of soul and blues, his offering in "Love & Hate" fans out much more than just the template of the classic acts he's inspired by. Along with a natural urge to go bigger in sound than heard in his humble debut album, Kiwanuka's mixing and matching of compositional ingredients and moods with mindful particularity shows that he's capable of versatility and interest-piquing arrangements while still remaining in his homage-paying base of neo-retro soul.