It wasn't until I moved to Manchester that I realised that the world portrayed in Steptoe & Son existed outside the realms of fiction. It is now an inescapable truth as every day, a truck with a crude loudspeaker visits our cul-de-sac laden with a Jenga-like assortment of chairs, springs and bed frames (though not fridges as I discovered on the only occasion that I might have had use of their services). Though I can neither confirm nor deny whether Rory Graham, aka Rag'n'Bone Man, has had any dalliances with the profession that spawned his moniker, there is no less enterprise in his route through the music industry. Having released three jam-packed EPs, he has now been awarded the Brits Critics' Choice Award (previous recipients include Adele, Florence and the Machine and Ellie Goulding) and is ready to grace us with his debut studio album, Human.
Thematically, the songs are often a juxtaposition of conflicts. They expose a dark heart whilst crawling desperately for the light. It is the musical equivalent of taking a kicking and getting back up again. Opening title track Human has a dark vibrancy. Over a chain gang rhythm, Rag'n'Bone delves into a deep soul to deplore the fragility of the human condition. What begins in slow and contemplative black and white transitions into a glorious technicolour explosion. This contrast continues in Skin and Broken Heart – both songs that showcase raw emotion punctuated by gutsy grit. Be The Man and Love You Less speak of the synergy of a relationship, viewed from both sides. In the first, the narrator is asking for time to become the man he is destined to be whereas the latter speaks of forgiveness – how no failure could cause him to love his partner less. Ego and Innocent Man are set to a dirty jazz backdrop that will leave you clamouring for more.
Odetta is a tribute to the late, great Odetta Holmes. Folk singer and civil right activist, Holmes can count Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Carly Simon, Maya Angelou, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin as individuals who have heralded her influence upon them. She is even attributed by Bob Dylan as the singer who first sold him on folk music and inspired him to trade in his electric guitar for an acoustic. The song was the absolute highlight of the album for me and it is a stunning lament to such an prominent humanitarian.
And it is with the restless, writhing spirit of Bob Dylan in our veins that we come to the very crux of what is so endearing about Rag'n'Bone Man. Many will know Dylan for his, at times utterly impenetrable, lyrical tap dancing – his poetic jaunts through distorted landscapes that existed nowhere but in his own mind. The real heart of Dylan though is found in his simpler, more lucid moments – the time-piercing pertinence of Blowin' In The Wind or the heart-breaking sentimentality of Most Of The Time. He is a master at cultivating a story and allowing it to flourish into a song. Rag'n'Bone Man has the same aptitude for hearing the music of the Earth, ploughing the furrow of contrast and allowing the songs to grow out through him. When combined with a voice that encompasses both a beguiling fragility and a compelling power, you start to get music that is as surprising as it is immaculately-crafted. Human is an album that is rustic, magic, at times tragic and always striving for authentic. I hope to hear a lot more from Rag'n'Bone Man in the future.
Then again, I might be wrong. I am a Musical Moron, after all...
Lyric Of The Week
“All of the lines we've crossed//They've finally bust us open//As a thousand tiny paper cuts of life”
This Rag'n'Bone Man
Trades scrap metal for brass and
Tends the roots of soul
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