Rag’n’Bone Man – Wolves

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It seems fans of Soul music have annoying purists. I know, it sounds weird. Soul music at its best is so warm and welcoming. Whether you’re bumping the aimless, hook-free stuff of Marvine Gaye or Stevie’s more melodic works, Soul is never high brow, never patronizing the listener. In complete opposition to the rock of the 70’s, Soul music is just an ordinary man with a prettier voice. Clearly, in listening to it nothing should matter much besides having good melodies, a good voice and an all-around charm.

This is too much to ask apparently, so we’re back to questions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘real Soul’. Since Rag’n’Bone Man – the most Bluesy name you can come up with since Seasick Steve – doesn’t have a Funk track going on for 10 minutes and endless falsetto without a tune, this is ‘bland Soul’. Come to think of it, Marvin Gaye was just showing off his vocal acrobatics over lightweight Funk. If that is ‘real Soul’, I’ll take Rag’n’Bone’s version any day. He has better hooks and his music is something more besides beating you over the head with how wonderful the world is because you’re a singer with a pretty voice.

Speaking of beautiful voice, writing off Rag’n’Bone as generic is odd. The last time such a gloomy, pessimistic artist hit the chart was, well, the Weeknd or Melanie Martinez. His music is actually not that close to Charlie Puth. He’s not a revivalist, churning out the old love songs with some horns and a more coherent song structure. His roots go way back, to the earliest of Folk music back when all there was to sing about was death.

This album is such a gloomy, death-obsessed thing. Rag’n’Bone sounds either at a funeral, on the verge of dying, after killing someone or before killing someone. Of course his low voice is the main attraction but it’s also how he uses it. His style of singing is the opposite of vocal acrobatics. That’s why comparing him to Soul singers is a bit odd, since he rarely takes those flights Marvin Gaye is famous for. Althoug falsetto occasionally leaks, it’s never dominant. What is dominant is how low his voice is, so low it might as well be buried.

The best expression of that is in the title track where he truly sounds dangerous. On the verses he’s frantic and almost loses the melody, but on the chorus the voice is so low you can imagine him trying really, really hard to contain himself form whatever danger is inside of him. It’s obviously about something inside of him that’s he’s scared of. The da-da-da voices in the backgrounds aren’t helpful. They are the voices in your head encouraging you to hurt or to cause mayhem. To think such a song will top the charts is uncanny. Such a song is too gloomy, too dangerous and too scared of itself to be comfortable. All the brutal screams Death Metal bands come up with, and they can’t reach the fear of the self in that song.

On the other side you get “Guilty”, which is a breakbeat-laden Blues thing where Rag’n’Bone claims he’s not guilty for feeling about hurting the lover he just woke up next to. Already in the opening lines we get death, because somewhere in this ‘million ways to hurt’ there must be an element of violence. Two lines later he writes the lover off completely. Although the rest of the song is simply about leaving a person, the first lines and those hard drums did their thing. Again, his low voice contributes a lot. It adds a layer of toughness and darkness to it all. Any other singer couldn’t evoke the image of death.

Death includes the loss of others, and “Life in Her Yet” is a more subdued number where he tries desperately to cling to someone who’s dead or lost all their memory. The repetition of the title is him trying desperately to convince himself you can defeat death, but saying that he ‘can’t let go’ isn’t a sign of strength but of weakness. He needs her. He cannot live with someone dying. In this song there is no incredibly low voice, but soft and defeated singing.

These are the main attratctions, but every song has the spectre of death hunting them. After all there’s a song called “Lay My Body Down”. Whatever “Reuben’s Train” is about, he sings it like a dirge at a funeral. From the singing alone, low and stretching into infinity you can deduce that the subject of the song must be dead. “No Mother” transforms the stomping work songs (that were all about death) with bass wobbles. Despite the EDM influence, it doens’t add any joy to the song.

He achieves this atmosphere successfuly because he understands how old Folk music works. He’s closer to Dock Boggs than anyone contemporary. The brand of ‘serious music’ he’s been grouped with, the bland wailing of Adele and Ed Sheeran are nowhere to be found. Always he’s a slave to the melody, but in the old days where all you had was a pickaxe and a banjo you couldn’t wail like you’re on the X-Factor. Sure, his voice is more polished and he has a greater variety in tone. Most Folk singers couldn’t pull off both “Guilty” and “Life in Her Yet” since they’re completely opposite characters. Now this may seem inauthentic, but by being aware of the overall theme of death he connects these two. They become two different expressions of the same theme.

3.5 wolves out of 5

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Ed Sheeran – X

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There is a brilliant message buried in X. It shouldn’t be too hard to unearth. All you have to do is listen to “Tenerife Sea” after remembering Sheeran brags about how girls ask him to fuck in “Don’t”. There are women who are certain all British men are hot guys in suits, that they’re very romantic, nice and will never break your heart. Ed Sheeran is that hot guy, only he’s aware that the image of a romantic man can be another way to have sex with as much women as possible.

Or maybe there is no message. Maybe Ed Sheeran believes his own bullshit.

Kid Rock also believes his own bullshit, but it took him some time to start. That’s also about the time he lost it. Before that, he tried really hard to convince himself he’s a brilliant musician. He did that by drawing from various American music styles – the loud guitars, the aggressive rapping, the country twang and figuring out why these tropes work. Kid Rock never sounded genuine on “Picture” but it didn’t sound like he tried. His inspiration for that ballad was not heartbreak but other ballads, but he listened to enough to make it work.

Ed Sheeran is like the British version of Kid Rock, with acoustic guitars instead of distortion and a Unthreatening Nice Guy image instead of redneck-ness. There must be a way to connect bragging tracks with acoustic ballads about love. The underrated Everlast made a career of this and Jason Mraz also had a brief time in the limelight.

Everlast and Mraz had a more focused image, though. Everlast’s ballads weren’t meant to sound like a Nice Guy. They were meant to sound like the chink in the macho man’s armor. Jason Mraz was always an average dude. Ed Sheeran, in one has a lot of sex and in the other is a hopeless romantic.

This isn’t the result of expressing a wide range of emotions. Sheeran sounds comfortable in “Sing” and “Don’t”. After all, he’s a famous singer so he must have first-hang accounts of girls asking him upstairs. The problem is that he brings this sexual confidence to his ballads.

Love songs that come from a place of sexual confidence sound either insincere, or pointless. If you’re so confident in your ability at wooing, why are aiming for catharsis? The best love songs are those where the singer sounds like he has to get it off his chest. On Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year”, the singer sounds like he’s exploding from happiness. On Cure’s “Lovesong”, Smith sounds like he will fall apart if the woman in question won’t marry him.

Sheeran doesn’t sound happy, sad, confused or any emotion that can lift a love song. He sounds like he’s trying to pick up girls. The songs sound no different than any song where a rapper waves his dollar bills and offers expensive drinks for sex. The difference between Sheeran and TI is that Sheeran sounds like he’s trying to have one night stands with girls who are dying for romance. TI knows his girls just want a sugar daddy.

This isn’t an image that exists outside of the record. Every artist creates an image inside the record that helps connect the songs and bring personality. Some play the same character on every album – Dave Wyndorf is a sexy nerd pretty much all the time. Some change – Marilyn Manson went from being Antichrist Superstar to an old man. If “One” and “I’m a Mess” were sincere enough, they could stand sitting next to “Sing”. “Picture” could stand next to a song about how we never meet a motherfucker quite like Kid Rock because Kid tried really, really hard to sound vulnerable.

It may be the set up of just guitar and vocals, which meant to sound intimate but isn’t. It can’t even count as a rip-off of Nick Drake, because any Nick Drake rip-off would sound a little more sincere. On “Photograph”, he rips off the lyrics of Incubus “Love Hurts” and doesn’t even bother to add anything. On “Thinking Out Loud”, he asks the woman if she will remember the taste of his love. Facebook news feeds moved on, but Sheeran is still stuck somewhere in time. I can’t even remember a time these lines meant something.

He’s a little better in the other tracks. There are good hooks in “Sing”, “Don’t” and “Runaway”. They would’ve worked much better in different hands. The toughness in “Don’t” would’ve added a lot to Jason Mraz. Everlast would’ve dealt with the alcoholism in “Runaway” much better.

Afire Love” is the track that best sums up the record, the good and the bad. Sheeran is at once convincing, but reveals how weak a songwriter he is. The subject of Alzheimer’s is pretty touching, and the melody is beautiful. The lyrics are so anticlimatic, though. The first verse is just a dull chronicle of how a person started losing his memory and that it made people feel bad, with a mentions of the devil and heaven which add nothing to the tone. Imagine how beautiful the song could be if Patterson Hood or Frank Turner – lyricists whose whole point is intimacy – handled them. Look at the song title. Such a serious subject deserves a song that’s not titled like another cheap love song.

Maroon 5 are another apt comparison, but they handled their fame better. They were into love songs for the sake of singing love songs, so even with their new sexual confidence their love songs weren’t obnoxious. Ed Sheeran never, for one moment, sound sincere. He’s full of confidence and arrogance but sings of weakness. Imagine if Snoop Dogg sang Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”. It’s not a clever contrast. Sheeran doesn’t play with these personalities, so they end up working against each other.At best, it’s decent pop but until he does something with his image it’ll be a glass ceiling. Even the best tracks sound weaker because they’re performed by him.

2 cups of ginger ales out of 5