I’ve been chewing through 2019 releases with three more album reviews. Two of these albums could have come straight from the 1970s – the soul of Michael Kiwanuka and the retro country of Michaela Anne. FKA Twigs’ Magdalene has a more modern sheen, but recalls the 1980s art-pop of Kate Bush.
Michael Kiwanuka was born in London to Ugandan parents who escaped the Idi Amin regime. He began his career as a session guitarist, then as an indie-folk artist. Now on his third album, Kiwanuka’s morphed into a soul performer with a retro sound that recalls Bill Withers and Otis Redding. It’s a natural fit for Kiwanuka’s warm voice.
Adding to the retro feel, there’s a touch of psychedelia to some of these arrangements, like the swirling riff on ‘Hard to Say Goodbye’. The punchy horn chart of ‘Living in Denial’ sounds like it’s straight from a late 1960s Stax single.
The punchy production from Danger Mouse sounds great, and Kiwanuka’s voice is warm and velvety. The songs aren’t always as memorable as those of the record’s influences – in particular, Kiwanuka’s lyrics often seem perfunctory, with personality-free couplets like “Don’t hesitate/Time heals the pain/You ain’t the problem.”
It’s tough living up to comparisons to legends like Withers and Redding, but Kiwanuka’s voice has too much soulful gravitas to be dismissed as mere pastiche.
Country songwriter Michaela Anne moved from Nashville to California to record her third album, hoping to capture a Southwest-noir atmosphere. Desert Dove is neither alt-country or mainstream country, but instead it’s a throwback – it’s pure 1970s country, sometimes like the gentle vibes of Emmylou Harris and other times like the smooth country-rock of the Eagles.
There are shades of Lindsey Buckingham in the climactic guitars that close ‘I’m Not The Fire’ and ‘Someone New’, while the chorus hook of ‘Child of the Wind’ recalls the Eagles’ ‘Already Gone’. The musical tropes are well worn, but Michaela Anne’s strength is her sincerity; she sounds great on the ultra-stripped down material like ‘Be Easy’ and ‘One Heart’.
Michaela Anne can connect emotionally with her gentle delivery on lines like “who are you to say what’s too much love to take for one heart?” It’s easy to take her side, she’s like an awkward outsider with lines like “I have a lover but in time he’ll go away/How could he love me when I act out this way?”
Desert Dove is heavily indebted to 1970s country and country-rock, but it’s charming enough to have a life of its own.
FKA Twigs was born in Gloucestershire to a Jamaican father and English/Spanish mother; she’s complained that her mixed race has caused her to be pigeon-holed as an R&B artist. She released her first EP, EP1, back in 2012, but it’s taken her until 2019 to release her second album.
The theatrical art-pop of Magdalene is surprisingly reminiscent of Kate Bush at times – although comparing a female artist to Bush is the music writer’s equivalent of “it tastes like chicken”. Compared to the trip-hop of FKA Twigs’ debut, LP1, her vocals are more upfront in these minimalist electronic arrangements, and she’s both eccentric and enthralling.
The lead single was the minimalist ‘Cellophane’; its off-kilter feel recalls Radiohead, but it’s one of the least dynamic songs on the record. In comparison, Magdalene works best when FKA Twigs is aiming for dramatic weirdness – ‘Mary Magdalene’ and ‘Fallen Alien’ both showcase her vocal range. ‘Holy Terrain’, with its feature from Common, edges closer to mainstream pop and it’s a good fit. The mantra-like ‘Daybed’ is also effective, with its list of bizarre one-liners; “Fearless are my cacti/Friendly are the fruit flies.”
Magdalene dropped late in 2019, but it’s still featured in many end of year lists. I find it too minimalist to reward repeat listening, but at its best FKA Twigs’ theatrical art-pop is very effective.