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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Tom Waits – Closing Time

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The sound of this album isn’t as surprising as how good it is, and what it actually is. You’ve heard it before. Before Waits was an ashtray given a singing voice, before he unleashed an Industrial-Blues masterpiece that was more horrifying than any Death Metal album cover he made Closing Time. In a way, this is the antithesis of his later career, with zero wild theatrics. Before Waits was the bizarro man reporting from the bizarro world, he was too ordinary to do anything but sing about heartbreak.

Even if Waits never made Bone Machine, this record would still be spectacular. I’m amazed this was even made and praised. As we know, males are supposed to be tough in society. No one goes out with a failure. The only time men are allowed to cry on stage is if they turn their wounds into theater of noise and anger. The whole rock’n’roll thing, especially in the depressed 90’s was about that.

So Reznor and that dude from Alice in Chains still sounded like tough males, somewhat. Nothing against them – Nine Inch Nails are my favorite band after all. It’s just that male vulnerability is so interesting, feels so hidden in real life yet here it is in music. The final song here lets go of words.

If the whole album is a concept album about singing in a bar hoping that it might attract that girl on the corner to like you, then the final instrumental is defeat. “Ol’ 55” opens with some happiness, the sound of you going to the bar hoping there’ll be a good show. “I Hope” comes right after when you spot the girl, and after that it’s constant swinging from one extreme to the next. On “Ice Cream Man”, you have confidence and you’re sure it’s going to work. “Lonely” is when it feels like a death sentence, you’ll never have the girl and nothing else ever. Eventually, there’s no point in singing – it’s closing time, the band plays a few more chords and melodies and you’re back home alone.

It’s such a lonely record. “Martha” is heartbreaking, a song I still find it difficult to hear. Although Waits mentions he got a lover, possibly a wife, it’s not convincing that he’s okay with it. Defeat is in his tone when he sings of poetry and prose, singing with the knowledge that no relationship will ever be that good. “Martha” is painful not because it’s about meeting with someone you used to be deeply in love with. All over it is the realization that nothing will ever be like this again, that all love afterwards is just an attempt to re-capture it. There’s a sense of doom there that’s just sad.

“I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” is the second big highlight there. There are a lot of songs about love and heartbreak, but not enough about disliking being in love. Finally we have a song that admits it, falling in love is no fun and sometimes it’s just better not to experience the whole thing. This song sets the stage and gives everything here the context. On this album, Waits isn’t someone who goes through the pain and joy of heartbreak. Love is, overall, bad for Waits. Few songs here are actually about being in the relationship – perhaps only “Little Trip” and by the time it arrives it sounds more like fantasy. Remember that “Ice Cream Man” is courting, not love actually working out. Although “Lonely” isn’t the best song here, it eventually becomes its centerpiece. It’s an album of loneliness, of heartbreak with no way out. In this album heartbreak isn’t something you go through but a state you’re trapped in – either hoping it won’t happen, to clinging to a girl, to being stuck in your memories and eventually admitting to yourself how lonely you are.

“Martha” and “I Hope” are the highlights, with most things providing good transition to flesh out the concept idea. While everything here is pretty good, these songs are knock-outs and everything else mostly sounds good in context. It’s an album you reach out to when you’re in a specific mood, but when the night is dark, long and lonely everything here is great. Outside this context, these songs can lack personality. “Rosie” is pretty good, but I doubt anyone would remember it outside the album. Bring the aforementioned context again and the song becomes essential. This is an album to hear in one sitting when heartbreak makes it feel like nothing good will ever happen. I’m sure there are many albums like it, but Waits is so specific in how he captures this hopeless loneliness. It’s unique because of how well it understands its genre and that’s why it remains a shocking record. Even if Waits never became the morbid blues man, this record would remain just as great.

3.5 empty bottles out of 5