Sussex-born and raised, Rory Graham is suddenly making a big splash. It’s been predicted by many, but time was seemingly running out for him. This veritable bear of a man, possessor of some fine tats (he has FUNK and SOUL on his fingers), a heavyweight wrestler’s bulk, and a finely sculpted beard, has been around for a few years now, including MCing for a drum’n’bass crew whilst still in his teens, before heading to Brighton where he joined Rum Committee, and performing at the legendary Slip Jam:B. He then collaborated with various hip-hop artists before hooking up with record producer Mark Carew, releasing the well-received Wolves EP in 2014, which included an appearance by Kate Tempest.
Slowly but surely we were taking notice of his increasingly sophisticated soul-funk-blues-hip hop sound, including appearances at last year’s Love Supreme Jazz Festival and Glastonbury. He then unleashed the track ‘Human’ which topped the charts in many European countries, and won the Brits’ Critics Choice Award in December of last year, an award that is often seen as a guarantor of future success. Recently he produced a stunning performance on Jools’ Annual Hootenanny, and a runner-up placing in the BBC Sound Poll 2017.
It seems that the moment has arrived for this Uckfield-raised artist, and Human, the album has been awaited with heightened interest. As with the title, Jamie Hartman has been enlisted seemingly to help mould Graham into an artist with mainstream appeal, and the production (still working with Mark Carew) on Human combines a contemporary polish allied to that big soul-blues voice of old but, like Cee-Lo, remains this side of gravelly. There’s a hint of sheen and that ability to reach the high notes along with the very low ones. It’s more slick, for sure, but Graham has leapt from the underground to the overground with aplomb, with considerable natural grace. Much like Adele, the evidence is there that he’ll continue to remain earth-bound in person, and live will keep it real, as it were, stripping away the bells and whistles for a truer, rawer version of himself.
As indicated by the album title, Human concerns themes of fragility, blame, regret, forgiveness and, well, being human. “I’ve been a victim of some sorry circumstance,” Graham sings on this funk-soul number, a typical Rag’n’Bone track in that the quieter, more contemplative verses are bridged to much bigger and booming choruses. This dynamic is everywhere in Human, such as on the r’n’b orientated ’Skin’, while hip hop beats and a stunning octave-straddling vocal performance dominates ‘Bitter End’: “You swear to God, but I’m a non-believer / You’re losing faith, while I’ve been holding on.” Showcasing further the varied bag of styles that Graham is now capable of, the easy grooves of the string-laden ’Be The Man’ is pop. But good old fashioned pop that declares: “I’ve been holding back for love, for reasons I cannot define / I’m still that man you want, it’s just hard to tell you so. We’re going through changes.” For sure, there’s nothing particularly new, but it still manages to sounds fresh, and honest, and full of the joie de vivre that we are beginning to associate with Rag’n’Bone’s music.
Indeed there are inventive, if largely subtle touches, throughout. Like the clapping percussion that permeates ‘Innocent Man’, the muffled beats on ‘Skin’, some subtle turntable effects on ‘Be The Man’, the strange yelping that punctuates ‘Human’, some big and clanking beats on ‘Love You Any Less’, trumpet notes that begin ‘Ego’ and the crackling vinyl that begins ‘As You Are’. It all works in the hands of Mark Carew, a big part of Graham’s journey these last few years, his righthand man in effect, in shaping the Rag’n’Bone sound.
The musical eclecticism continues apace on the second half of the the album, beginning with the euphoric piano-led balladry of ‘Love You Any Less’ and the modern soul of the deeply personal and moving ‘Odetta’, which also apparently features the equally outstanding vocalist Foy Vance, although you would be hard pressed to hear him. The guitar and piano-based soul-gospel ‘Grace’ is also elegant, and spiritual sounding, while some blazing old school brass and gospel backing vocals underlie the upbeat trip-hop beats and grooves in ‘Ego’, which benefits from a short example of Graham’s rapping ability, a string to his bow he has largely eschewed these last few years. Delving deeper into retro-land, pastiche Motown beats begins ’Arrow’, perhaps the weakest cut, and the only one where the disparate elements don’t quite mesh, not helped by Graham’s penchant for less-than-inspired lyrical cliques (“All your love keeps me in chains, just like the river I’ll come back again”)
Final track, however, ‘Die Easy’, is a brave and beautifully delivered a cappella, his interpretation of the traditional gospel song ‘In My Time of Dying’, which points to the roots of Graham, a man who was inducted into the world of old blues via his father’s record collection.
Human is classic soul-pop. There’s a universality to the lyrical sentiments – if a little cliqued at times – carried on a finely tuned balance between contemporary and retro sounds. Whilst the nods to the past are obvious and ubiquitous, they aren’t over-cooked. Human is firmly modern. And with Graham’s controlled yet passionate delivery, allied to a big compassionate bearing heart (he spent time as a carer, to those with learning difficulties), you just gotta believe.