By Innes MacKintosh
For most people who first properly heard of Rag‘n’Bone Man through his performances on BBC Live Lounge or on the Graham Norton Show (and from people I’ve spoken to, that seems like a lot of us), the rather lush, almost pop-based production of Human may come as a surprise, especially given the stripped-back power of those live performances. With four producers divvying up the album’s 12 tracks, Human is quite an eclectic affair, sonically. Although most of the tracks fall in the area of blues and soul, embellished with elements of modern pop, much of the album feels less like a single piece of cohesively produced music and more like a compilation of various producers’ takes on singer-songwriter Rory Graham’s work. That is not to say these songs are bad; most of them are very good, but they are clearly geared for single releases.
Indeed, the only completely consistent element throughout the album is the singer’s arresting voice. Sussex-born Graham – who is credited with co-writing all of the album’s tracks – possesses remarkably soulful and powerful vocal skills and, regardless of producer, his voice is centre-stage on all tracks, free of audio trickery and unnecessary effects.
However, it is when the production goes completely out of the overarching genre of the album that the results are best. The chorus of Arrow sounds like Sam-Cooke-meets-late-70s-disco, with its easy rolling rhythm and lush backing vocals, while the smooth, almost gospel-tinged soul of Odetta acts as a nice change of mood coming about halfway through the album. Originally a rapper, Graham returns to his roots on the rap section of Ego, a hip-hop-influenced track with samples of saxophone and trumpet which has tinges of some of Kendrick Lamar’s work. The a cappella closing track, Die Easy, harkens back to old delta blues, so much that it could easily seem like a genre exercise, but the emotion of Graham’s voice carries it through.
Lyrically, the album is solid, even if all the songs about lurve are slightly banal, but there is also some excellent work throughout. The lyrics are at their best in the songs about things other than love. There are some great studies of the human condition in Grace, Ego and, funnily enough, Human, and a wonderful thank-you letter to a girl who saved the soul of his “brother” in Odetta.
When it is at its adventurous best, Human contains some impressive work and takes some risks which pay off, and is a solid offering and a very promising debut from a clearly talented artist. It will be interesting to see where Graham goes from here.
Rag’n’Bone Man will be playing at TRNSMT Festival on Friday 7th July 2017.