The first time I heard anything by Rag’n’Bone Man, I was waiting for my shift to end when the monotonous cycle of pop and rock was broken by a powerfully deep voice, singing this funky, honest song called “Human”. Naturally, the first thing I did when I got home was find out who this singer was, and what other songs he’d recorded.
Rory Graham, better known by his moniker Rag’n’Bone Man, is a British singer-songwriter who only recently emerged from the fringes onto the main music scene. No stranger to music, Graham grew up on blues, folk and jazz. He started out singing live at local jam sessions before being introduced to rapper Gi3mo and beatmaker Leaf Dog, but it took some time before he caught the attention of larger audiences. He’s released two EPs, Wolves in 2014 in collaboration with record producer Mark Crew, and Disfigured in 2015; both are equally good listens. Human is his debut studio album, released on February 10th, 2017, and the deluxe album is a 19 track mixture of soul, folk, blues, and hip-hop. It has not only met, but gone beyond the expectations stirred up by his previous works, and hit singles.
The album starts off strong, with the aforementioned highly successful single “Human”. I think everyone has experienced, at least once in their lives, the pressure to do more than you are capable of. This song expresses that sometimes hard-to-grasp reality that we aren’t perfect, and our flaws are unavoidable. We aren’t superpowered beings with angelic dispositions – we’re human. The song is bold, pleading, and arguably one of the best songs on the album; however, this also means it sets high standards for the songs that follow.
“Skin”, another single from the album, is about a relationship that doesn’t quite make it. She was there when he opened up to her, and her prescence was so strong that he believes she’ll stay with him forever “When my skin grows old/When my breath runs cold/I’ll be thinking about you”. While I’ve never been in a situation like this, I couldn’t help but empathize with the longing expressed in this track.
In contrast, “Bitter End” tackles a different end to a relationship, in a harsher, more confrontational tone which only softens during the chorus and third verse. There’s a heavy tension that runs throughout the song, heightening when Graham asks “have we come to the bitter end?”. This is the moment before acceptance settles in, when you’re still blindsided and trying to make sense of the change that has occurred. The song itself ends with him sounding almost lost, both accepting and disbelieving.
The song “Odetta” exemplifies how deeply the songs in his album mean to him, having been taken from his life and experiences, and from those close to him. During one concert, Graham explained “[t]his song is a really personal one of mine. I wrote it about a friend of mine. He had a daughter called Odetta, and I thought that was worth writing a song about, so it’s a song about her for him”.
With “Ego” you can really hear the combination of hip-hop with jazz. Graham is unapologetic in calling out the self-centred attitudes some people have, behaviors I feel are becoming more prominent in our society today. It’s a picture of entitled ignorance that needs to be taken down a notch, which is exactly what Graham does. The mixture of genres and the underlying message create a feeling of bubbling frustration that’s straining against being contained.
One of the songs that stood out most to me was “Die Easy”. This one was a bit unusual in that it was the only track on the album without any instrumentals, and was completely carried by Graham’s voice. To my delight though, “Die Easy” did not need any other sound, because his vocals created the impression of music as he sang – one could imagine the instruments through his tone and lifts. This track was chilling, and beautiful in its simplicity which gave centre stage to Graham’s range.
This makes the following track “The Fire” a perfect contrast: here the music is back in full force with a beat that’s a throw-back to 90’s hip-hop. Graham is no longer dispirited, but energetic and loud. The range shown previously is taken to the next level as she goes from a gospel-like call, to a steady rap.
Another song that really caught my attention was the unusual, mournful self-eulogy “Lay Me Down”, originally from the Wolves EP. It reuses the piano as an introduction piece, before adding a stronger beat by the second verse; throughout the drums and guitar though, those piano keys are never lost. The line “These are my confessions” is repeated throughout the chorus. This song is darker, a spine-tingling expression of the final thoughts before death and all the final thoughts, hopes and regrets that come in that moment.
The blues influence comes back strong in the final track “Healed”. It’s the balm that covers the wounds left by the previous tracks, after every emotion has been shaken out of the listener; an uplifting ending to a tumultuous journey. While it may not leave as grand an impression as the opening “Human”, it serves its purpose as a solid finish.
I found it incredibly difficult to choose only a few songs that I felt best represented the wide range of this album. Rag’n’Bone Man offers his honest expression of the human experience, with all our imperfections, joys, and miseries, placed on display and shouted out to the world. A multitude of familiar themes such as love and heartbreak, loss, fear, and determination are tackled in unique ways that listeners can still connect to but think further upon. The best way, really the only way, for anyone to truly understand the depth and talent shown by Rag’n’Bone Man here is to listen to this album themselves, something I wholeheartedly recommend.