Heaven knows how a chunky lad from Uckfield has the balls to make a gospel record in 2017. But Rag'n'Bone Man - born plain Rory Graham - has done just that. Channelling the great, hollering bluesmen of yore (particularly his idol Muddy Waters), Rory’s stentorian vocals galvanise ‘Human’ from the opening bars of its titular chart-topping kick off, to the stonking, a cappella audacity of set closer ‘Die Easy’.
Raised in a musical household – dad played a mean slide guitar – teenage Rags cut his live teeth singing at pub jam nights. Inevitably rebelling against the drab cul de sac that is the provincial blues scene, he upped sticks to join nearby Brighton’s thriving hip-hop community.
His album borrows just enough stylistic tropes from both worlds, pairing the spare, snappy breaks of hip-hop (most evident on ‘Be The Man’ and ‘Ego’) with the infectious licks and brassy instrumentation of the blues (especially on ‘Innocent Man’).
The spirit of gospel runs through this record like a golden thread; most obviously, sonically, with ensemble handclaps, and the church-service piano of ‘As You Are’. But moreover, while by no means a religious record, the lyrics consistently return to evangelical themes of redemption, salvation and hope – “In the eyes of a saint I’m a stranger… We all try / We’re all one step from Grace”, or “Baby I know my gospel but I’m not a preacher.”
For what it’s worth, Clash’s favourite moments are when he goes a bit fire-and-brimstone. On ‘Bitter End’ he snarls, menacing as a Louisiana swamp gator. On ‘Ego’ he rails against an arrogant rival: “ain’t you mister know it all”. Something about his growly, lower-register vocal doesn’t work quite so well on the upbeat numbers, for us at least. That said, ‘Human’ is an impressive, life-affirming record chock-full of hooks and classy, grown-up production. Praise be.
Words: Andy Hill
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