By Arts & Entertainment Editor Sawyer Pollitt
A&E Section Editor
Michael Kiwanuka, British born singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist recently released his third full-length studio album, the self-titled Kiwanuka. For someone unfamiliar with his work, Kiwanuka plays like a retro throwback that wouldn’t seem out of place in a ‘70s period Netflix original.
Kiwanuka, who has been described as an indie-folk musician, has been a known face in the UK indie and jazz scene since his debut in 2012, but has remained relatively unknown in the states. To force Kiwanuka into the indie-folk box would be a disservice to his diverse and enthralling retro instrumentation and lo-fi production.
The closest comparison to Kiwanuka’s style that can be drawn is to a mix of soul, folk, and jazz. Kiwanuka also draws from his Ugandan heritage. Both of his parents left Uganda during the reign of Idi Amin. This influence is heard in some of the rhythms not only on this project but on other work released in past years.
Kiwanuka is an example of an album that has superb cohesion between the moods of individual tracks. While the songs don’t necessarily flow into each other mechanically, they do form one tapestry of mood and atmosphere that make this LP one that tells a story.
For this reviewer, the album evokes the feeling of saudade. For those who may not be familiar with the term, saudade is a Portuguese term meaning “a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia.” While hard to put words to, this feeling is ever present throughout the album, and each track offers up a different aspect to this feeling. Either regret, bittersweet joy, or longing.
Part of how this unique mood is achieved is though the ‘70s style orchestration that makes up the backdrop of many of the songs on Kiwanuka. The horns and strings that form the bed upon which sits the often driving lead guitar, give the project a sense of nostalgia for a time that, at least for this listener, was never experienced.
In a strange way, the atmosphere present on Kiwanuka is like the other side of the coin that is Vaporwave. This is, admittedly, an odd comparison. Kiwanuka lacks the cynical look at consumerist culture that Vaporwave possesses, but the auditory hallmarks of the genre are there, namely, lo-fi production. However instead of mimicking the far-off speakers of a middle-American mall, the low hum and record fuzz make the listener feel like they’re listening to the album on a portable record player in the back of a carpeted van.
All this talk about mood and atmosphere is not to say that the actual musicianship is lacking, in fact the players on this project all hold a tight groove and provide excellent and inspired instrumentals. Looking at the music itself, Kiwanuka draws from the standard conventions of the ‘70s R&B genre. Kiwanuka’s voice complements the instrumentals in a way that is unobtrusive yet effortlessly rises above the sound to deliver messages about self-love and self-acceptance, themes that are well supported by this genre of music.
After giving this album an initial listen, I would score it at a solid 8 out of 10. This is a project that I could easily see myself returning to time and time again. Much like my past review of Anderson .Paak’s Ventura, this is the kind of project that I would call “movement music”. This doesn’t mean that it’s music you can dance to, but rather this is the kind of music you play on a long car ride to an unknown destination.