Rag'n'Bone Man – Human
The Rag’n’Bone Man. The R’n’B Man. Oh lordy, his trouble so hard. Rory Graham has got the blues: blessed with a rich yet gritty voice, allied with a propensity for tastefully spacious hip-hop production, he’s been what those in the know call ‘hotly tipped’ for some time now, even coming second in the BBC’s Sound of 2017 poll (do they issue trophies or plaques for that? Dunno). Rarely is his name mentioned without reference to blues legends, or the certainty of his star’s ascension. And maybe this relentless hyperbole is the problem.
Sure, Graham’s voice is powerful; not Levi Stubbs powerful, perhaps, but muscular and versatile nonetheless. It’s a shame, though, that even its most melismatic hints of adventure feel carefully rehearsed; slickly produced beyond any sense of risk or catharsis. Bitter End and Love You Any Less try to present their sorrowful tales of relationship drama as hefty, tear-jerking drama, but they come across as yet more wetly bland ballads in a world that’s already drowning in ‘em. You can appreciate the immense skill that’s gone into their creation, but you’ll find it difficult to emerge with a gut reaction more intense than ‘oh well, wonder what’s on telly’ or ‘actually, have we run out of teabags?’
See, the blues that Rag’n’Bone Man attempts to channel was originally performed by artists navigating the depths of their darkness or nihilism after some pretty serious soul-searching – hence songs about slavery, hence murder ballads, hence the need for a joyous yin to its bleak yang in the form of gospel music. Human, meanwhile, sounds like Graham’s greatest tragedy occured when the newsagent refused to accept a taped-together fiver, while a stray pound coin rolled away under the crisp rack. When music screams this hard at you to deal with its ‘authenticity’, the least it can do is bleed for you a bit. This is barely even grazed.
And that’s before we even deal with its greatest cop-out: the male refusal to take ownership of his fucking problems. ‘I’m only human after all / Don’t put your blame on me,’ he whines on the title track, ignoring the fact that human nature is a pretty weak excuse for anything, and naturally refusing to address the sin in question. ‘You’ve got to have faith in me / ‘Til I can be the man I said I’d be,’ goes Be The Man, as you fight the urge to yell, ‘NO, YOU PROVE IT.’ No fucking wonder traditional masculinity’s allegedly in crisis, if it in itself is a get-out clause. Maybe it’s a bit optimistic to hope pop music can change this, but it’s certainly not unreasonable to feel short-changed when it propagates such bullshit.
If this all seems like we’re being exceptionally harsh on Rag’n’Bone Man, consider that it’s only because his obvious talent suggests he’s capable of so much more. If he’s happy to turn in this sort of pleasant-enough coffee table pop, then good for him; inasmuch as anyone actually sells records these days, Human will almost certainly shift units. That voice deserves better, however, and so do we. How much does a soul fetch at the crossroads these days, anyway?
Listen to: Human