An honest, powerful exemplar of how music ought to be done, combining a classical soulful blues approach with modern pop structures.
After the success of title track of ‘Human’ saw him land this year’s BRITs Critics’ Choice Award, Rag’n’Bone Man – Uckfield’s 31-year-old Rory Graham – combines a sense of vintage blues and modern jazz for a debut that carries a unique sense of individuality, with his fresh focus offering something rare to the modern pop outlook. In many ways, Human models itself on the classical soul approach of Emeli Sandé, although Graham’s voice offers more of an earthy quality than Sandé’s.
‘Human’ itself, a gargantuan hit blending relatable chanting with a sense of drama, opens up to establish Graham’s distinctive style, with the remaining 11 tracks exploring how it can be transformed in different ways. ‘Ego,’ with an orchestral wind section for support, is more classical-cum-sultry; ‘Innocent Man’ employs clapping for a feeling of community, becoming reminiscent of a church gospel environment. Graham, however, is also not afraid to reinforce his songs with flavours of his days as a jungle MC: ‘Ego’ stands out for this reason, even if the lyrical strength of the rap itself is not particularly groundbreaking.
Yet, Graham manages to show that the pop touch to his music, including feel-good beats, can sit comfortably alongside his bluesy core. The more upbeat ‘Arrow’ (“Oh, your love keeps me in chains / Just like the river, I’ll come back again”) contrasts, with its accelerated tempo a nice dimensional change from the stripped-back and revealing ‘Grace,’ in which the focus falls on the personal message rooted at the heart of the lyrics. ‘Be The Man’ may seem like an archetypal Ed Sheeran or Sam Smith melody, however it manages to retain the raw punch of Graham’s vocal.
Exhibiting this variety not only makes Human an excellent exemplar of style experimentation, but it showcases Graham’s lyrical and composition skills to complete a fully-rounded album, at least in the most part. Unbelievably impressive, though, is its brave closer: the purely a cappella ‘Die Easy,’ which demonstrates a distinct sense of vulnerability as Graham both exposes himself and his voice, leaving rasps intact like the cracks in Sia’s music. Whilst emphasising the depth of his voice, it pays suitable homage to old-age blues and the moral-cum-metaphoric rhetoric it spoke in (“The devil’s gonna make up my dying day”) for a modern audience.
There is a slight repetitive nature to some portions of Human – the structural and lyrical similarity of singles ‘Human’ and ‘Skin’ causes an unintended blending, for example – and there is a certain sense that Graham could have pushed himself a little further, despite much older tracks on the deluxe edition like the sharp ‘Wolves’ serving an attempt to resolve this. Overall, however, this offers a nice continuum, with its unique bluesy stance, strong blend of vocal approaches, a capella additions, and startling soulful dimension ensuring Human thoroughly deserves our highest accolade.
Human is out now via Columbia