If there’s one thing the music press loves doing, it’s building a temple at which to worship new musician, only to throw them onto the sacrificial bonfire a few months down the line. You might remember there was a time when Razorlight were actually described by many as a good band, yet nowadays describing a frontman as “Borrell-esque” is just about the harshest criticism you can level at a musician. The Vaccines know how this feels this better than most - disproportionate hype surrounded their early gigs, but the backlash still came just months into their career, before they’d even released their cleverly-titled debut album.
It’s this that made me a little hesitant to say what I really thought about Michael Kiwanuka’s set at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds on Saturday, which I was reviewing for The Fly. He’s still new on the scene after all, still learning the ropes. The fact is though, by a few bars into his opening track, I was bored stiff.
What’s more, I was surprised. I first came across Kiwanuka when he was featured in The Stool Pigeon last summer. For me, this was a nod of approval from the most credible music paper around, and when I first heard ‘Tell Me A Tale’, I was floored. It was accessible pop music in way that had been done dozens of times before, but not for a long, long time. Not only did its billowing jazziness and painstakingly nostalgic timbres sound unlike anything in the charts, it was completely remote from anything making waves in the indie scene. And with a voice that sounds like a cloud of cigarette smoke woven into a soft pillow, what could go wrong?
I was pleased then, when Kiwanuka won the BBC Sound of 2012 poll. Unlike his predecessors, he seemed used to slumming it on his own playing shows to seven people; he was the kind of guy who wrote his songs by himself in his bedroom, not under the instruction of a major label in-house composer; perhaps most shockingly of all, he didn’t go to the BRIT School. He’d even released his early EPs on the independent Communion Records, home to the likes of Pete Roe and Ben Howard.
Now though, he’s got his debut album, Home Again, coming out on Polydor, and it’s not without a degree of cynicism that I worry what signing to a label owned by Universal Music Group has done to Michael Kiwanuka. His music already has commercial appeal - him winning the BBC poll tells you that much. The fear is that by trying to spread that appeal as broadly and thinly as possible, those controlling Kiwanuka’s career will flatten out everything that made him interesting.
There was evidence of this happening already when I saw Kiwanuka play on Saturday. He now performs with a backing band who are tear-inducingly dull, playing naff guitar solos and cheesy organ parts over songs which are fairly standard in themselves. They’ve turned an independent, authentic new artist into someone who makes bland backing music, inoffensive enough to win enormous airtime, but which is uninteresting and wholly over-familiar. They turn tracks like ‘I’m Getting Ready’ - mesmerising when performed with the sparsest of accompaniment - into the sort of lounge-friendly fodder that could soundtrack a P&O cruise.
I’ve not heard the album and I hope it’s better than the band who are playing it live make it sound. My gut feeling though, is that Michael Kiwanuka’s mainstream success is no longer a victory for “real music” (whatever that means). It feels like the powers-that-be in the music industry are turning a genuinely exciting artist into someone who will offend the fewest people and therefore shift more units, but produce little of creative merit - it almost amounts to industry-backed boredom. And most frustratingly of all, it doesn’t have to be that way if the success of Adele, whose label give her complete control, is anything to go by. Believe it or not, great musicians can be trusted to make great music on their own.
Sadly, it was telling to hear Kiwanuka introduce ‘Tell Me A Tale’ on Saturday. He explained how he recorded a new version of it, but wasn’t happy with the way it had been produced. His record label put it out anyway and the positive response it got from listeners convinced Kiwanuka to stick with it. It was a throw-away anecdote to fill some time while he tuned up, but it sounds worryingly like the summit of a slippery slope towards tedium, over which Michael Kiwanuka is losing control.
My name is Robert and I’m a recovering emoholic. I’m 22 years old, I have a stable nine-to-five job in an office and I go for walks in the countryside at the weekend. Despite this, on Monday night I found myself in the company of several hundred others screaming the following lyrics at the top of my voice:
Is that what you call a getaway?
Tell me what you got away with
Because you left the frays from the ties you severed
When you say, ‘Best friends means friends forever’
I know, I ought to be over it, but watching Brand New play at Rock City in Nottingham didn’t just remind me what I loved about emo when I was in my mid-teens - it reminded me what I still love about Brand New.
That song quoted above, ‘Seventy Times 7’, is simply about falling out with your best friend (rumours suggest that in this case Brand New’s Jesse Lacey had a bit of a to-do with John Nolan from Taking Back Sunday, who subsequently responded on his own band’s sublime debut album, Tell All Your Friends, with ‘There’s No ‘I’ In Team’). It’s expressed in a way that is so gratuitously adolescent that it’s surprising to see 33-year-old Lacey still singing lyrics like, So don’t apologise / I hope you choke and die, but it’s a sort of honesty which, although it’s rare, it works. You just have to look at the commercial success of Adele, whose album 21 deals frankly with the end of a relationship and is still selling shitloads, or the critical success of Perfume Genius.
Nostalgia plays a part - when me and all the other 20-somethings in the crowd at Rock City see Brand New play pop-punk, 2001-style, it reminds us of being teenagers and a time when we didn’t have to worry about paying council tax, and we welcome it (others use Take That to perform the same function). There’s also something satisfyingly pure about the way Lacey expresses himself on ‘Seventy Times 7’, and the way teenagers express themselves generally. As adults, we wouldn’t dream of being as blunt as Lacey was back then for (quite legitimate) fear of sounding like precious dicks. But sometimes you don’t want to hold your tongue and frustrations do present themselves as black and white, so it’s nice to have Lacey up on stage, embodying our whiny inner child, saying the sort of things we can’t get away with as grown-ups.
I appreciate that for many people, seeing a man in his thirties still wearing his heart on his sleeve so plainly is unpleasant and annoying, but for me, that analysis completely underestimates Brand New. They invariably get lumped in with the sort of emo bands you associate with teenage girls who backcomb their hair and wear too much eyeliner, which is analysis that ignores so much of Brand New’s output. Go back as far as their 2003 emo masterpiece/blueprint Deja Entendu and admit that you’ve never heard any song that evokes the fear and paranoia of being stalked as effectively as ‘Sic Transit Gloria (Glory Fades…) - that bassline is the sound of being followed home. Then try 2006’s The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me and you’ll hear the sort of intricate, isolated guitar playing that makes Pitchfork readers fawn over Deerhunter. Even on their last album, Daisy, Brand New made an album that cleverly combined aggression and emotion with as much skill, imagination and subtlety as Refused or Glassjaw, making it perfectly clear that the straightforward emo anthems were out.
Last year, for Drowned In Sound, I scathingly reviewed the last album by Yellowcard, a contemporary of Brand New at the height of their commercial success. My problem with When You’re Through Thinking, Say Yes, was that it sounded like a group of fully grown men trying to write a record that articulated the feelings of their young fanbase, without the band actually feeling those things themselves. Brand New, on the other hand, have realised they can’t act like teenagers on record these days. They can still get away with playing songs that they wrote when they were kids live because you can’t take away how someone felt when they wrote a song. The problems arise when bands start writing music about experiences or emotions they’ve obviously outgrown. For Brand New to still write songs like ‘Seventy Times 7’ would be inauthentic, so they’ve done something else and succeeded in making incredible albums where former greats such as Taking Back Sunday and Jimmy Eat World have stooped to failure.
The only troubling thing about the current Brand New tour is its context - they haven’t released a new album since 2009 and they debuted no new material. They can get away with it for now because their rate of progression still places them head and shoulders above their former peers (I mean, have you heard the last Jimmy Eat World album?). Next time though, even Brand New will need to offer more than a nostalgia trip.