Human by Rag'n'Bone Man - Album Review
22nd February 2017
‘Human’, the debut album of the East Sussex-born Rag’n’Bone Man (real name Rory Graham) has become the biggest-selling male debut album in a decade; it sold 117,000 copies in its first week, topping the UK album charts with ease. He is the winner of this year’s Brits Critic’s Choice Award, and rightly so.
From its beginning, from the first empowered drumbeat of the title-track, Rag’n’Bone Man has made his mark, his presence known in an unapologetically gritty fashion which goes on to blend blues chords with the energy of pop.
‘Human’ is a song of paradoxes: It is at once big and booming but also thoughtful, reflective, on the pulse of the 21st Century. It’s self-reflective in a way that speaks to all, the video symbolically featuring people from all walks of life. And the confident forward motion of it leaves no room for pity: this is me, take it or leave it. Yet do its lyrics, and the powerful realness behind Rag’n’Bone Man’s voice ring out as a cry for help, a self-justification? The next song, ‘Innocent Man’, places him “on the stand” – he is being judged, and this album is his self-defence. Again, ‘Innocent Man’, despite these vulnerabilities, is confident and assertive as the strong electronic bass continues from ‘Human’. It’s honest, determined.
The gospel influences of ‘Skin’ again bring out the album’s honesty; the thin timbre of its start, the voice, the organ and the piano render it almost confessional. Rag’n’Bone Man seems to have ignored conventional pop ideas of fakery, despite his use of electronic instruments. Even the lyrics, stating simply “it was almost love”, resist the tendency to exaggerate; he tells it as is it, and it was “almost” right.
The subsequent songs all carry through with these ideas. They are all real, expressing a nuanced sensitivity. And throughout as well is this drumbeat. A drumbeat that has become synonymous with Rag’n’Bone Man’s resolve to sing it as it is.
Perhaps the album’s direction is lost somewhat at the volta of the acapella ‘Die Easy’ and the balance of textures is slightly less effective than in the first songs. The drum slows, and there are several moments of open, folk-infused chords showing a tenderer side, a vulnerability finally. The album ends on a suspended cadence – in a truly human fashion, it ends with questions unanswered. Yet it is not without hope. The final song is ‘Healed’, allowing the chance of a positive future. ‘Human’ is not bleak, it’s real. And Rag’n’Bone Man’s soulful, passionate voice is the perfect voice for such a vision.