Let the record show that Rory Graham, a.k.a. Rag’n’Bone Man, has a gifted voice. The BRITS 2017 Critics’ Choice Award winner’s debut LP Human is studded with moments that demonstrate this. But albums aren’t built on voice alone.
Human occasionally gets it right. The title track has a dark, warm sound, fortified with gospel vocals and driven by a cucumber-cool bassline. The catchy chorus of ‘Arrow’ revels in jangling percussion and rich instrumentation. Ballad ‘Love You Any Less’ employs strong harmonies and samples faraway murmurings to layer a thick atmosphere.
However, the debut from East Sussex-born Graham is troubled by the confused direction in which it attempts to push its talent. Many tracks are let down by their lyrics, the songwriting, the production, or some combination of the three.
The four-chord faux-melancholy of second single ‘Skin’ rings hollow. Its sheer soppiness will pique the interest of renowned cheesemonger Avicii, who’s almost certainly cooking up a spicy EDM remix as we speak.
While some tracks, like ‘Ego,’ stylistically embrace the soulful sound of Graham’s voice, others reach out to more varied genres with what feels like token effort. ‘Be the Man’ begins promisingly enough with a canned hip-hop beat, but botches it completely with its sickeningly saccharine hook: “We’re going through changes/ changes/ changes yeah/ you gotta have faith in/ faith in/ faith in me”. More often than not, it’s hard to believe Human is taking its blues influences seriously.
The production does shine on a few tracks. ‘Innocent Man’ opens with a sunny, relaxed bass groove and a drum beat that is delicately dynamic, bouncing with reverb. But the song is let down by its chorus, as subtlety is abandoned with the addition of huge, clobbering crash cymbals and ‘make some noise’ handclaps. It’s a shame that this is the path chosen for many of the tracks on Human, for Graham’s voice shows real talent and would do well amidst a more organic sound.
This is, at the end of the day, a pop record under an alarmingly thin ‘soul’ veneer. There’s nothing wrong with that, but Human is heavy-handed and walks into a few too many clichés to convince us that there’s much beneath the surface of that raw, gutsy voice.