Some music carries a heavy weight without being heavy at all. Instead, it’s the magnitude of that work which hits you before the notes have time to crystallize within your psyche. Granted, “big” projects are influenced by the hype machine, while others take you by surprise and steal you away from the rote commercialism of popular music. From its onset, it’s clear Michael Kiwanuka’s Home Again is something else: his crestfallen baritone evokes thoughts of soul luminaries Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, although his inflection isn’t quite as strong. His scant backdrop is equally nostalgic and unassuming — an acoustic guitar, drum brushes, and faint bass lines. The music is mere window dressing for Kiwanuka’s lovelorn musings of heartbreak, anguish, and uncertainty. Either way, it results in one of the year’s most dynamic recordings. Quite the accomplishment for a project so focused on minimalism.
Honesty never loses its luster. That remains true in all genres of music, whether it’s Nas rapping about real-life divorce instead of drug fantasies or John Lennon daring to dream of peace. Listeners want to feel connected with the artist in question, forge a personal relationship, if only for a fleeting moment. It doesn’t matter how long the visit, as long as you keep a piece of the person upon his departure. Kiwanuka stays for just 39 minutes on Home Again, a relatively brief glimpse into his serene aesthetic. “Rest your soul,” he sighs on “Rest,” “live in peace.” Here, his voice brims with a weary energy that belies the tranquility. We all have long days, and this song — with its methodical drum taps and floating strings — is a soundtrack for that exasperation. The same goes for the title track, even if the pace is a bit quicker: “So I’ll close my eyes, and look behind, moving on.”
That pessimism can give way to doe-eyed optimism, though, as on “Always Waiting” and “I Won’t Lie,” both of which harbor religious undertones within their neo-folk melodies. On the former, he sings with conviction: “My time is coming soon, so I’ll be waiting for you.” On the latter, he surrenders: “Can’t find peace all on my own, can’t seem to get there all alone.” As it unfolds, Home Again feels like Kiwanuka’s journey to God, a path of personal enlightenment in which he gets closer to his spiritual center. In the process, Kiwanuka crafts an opus so insular that it feels like a one-on-one conversation between he and you. Through it all, he creates a “big” statement that resonates the old fashioned way: with heartrending truth and devout belief. In the end, you hope Kiwanuka finds the peace he’s looking for on his quest for understanding–or at the very least, you pray he makes it home.
- Marcus J. Moore