Recently crowned British Breakthrough Act at last month’s BRITs and picking up the Critics’ Choice Award, East Sussex’s Rory Graham (perhaps better known as Rag’n’Bone Man) has had a triumphant few months, topped off with his first album debuting at number one on the UK Albums Chart. Not to mention initial sales of 117,000 copies resulting in it becoming the fastest-selling debut album by a male artist during the 2010s.
Q Magazine’s ‘your new favourite act of 2017’ emerged onto the mainstream music scene during the second half of the ever-surprising 2016, by which time it was almost no revelation that the unexpected might happen, and bluesy, soulful Rag’n’Bone Man (named after watching 1970s sitcom Steptoe and Son) took the world by storm as smoothly as his crooning. ‘Human’, the first and title-track of the album, gripped listeners with its short yet bold refrain of the song’s subject being ‘only human after all’, and its pulsing RnB intro rhythm. It’s a strong opening track for the album, a song which has appeared on A-Lists of many different radio stations in the last few months, another illustration of its success. From a singer with knuckle tattoos of ‘soul’ and ‘funk’, a passion for which is distinctively sewn into his music, the singer’s rich, soulful tones certainly hook attention from the off, a definite fresh sound in contemporary charts.
‘Innocent Man’ comes next, an up-tempo, jazz-like piece with its percussion prelude and smooth saxophone and bass notes laced throughout. Similarly to ‘Human’, track two seems to protest Graham’s innocence as he reflects on his heart beating for someone else. The album’s second single ‘Skin’ comes in at number three, with its almost acapella opening lines before an RnB drumbeat, which echoes that of ‘Human’. It’s clear by now intense or unrequited love is often the subject for Rag’n’Bone Man, sung here once again with effortless vibrato and blending his blues influences and later discovery of hip-hop.
unrequited love is often the subject for Rag’n’Bone Man
‘Bitter End’ opens musically like a lost Elbow track, however Rag’n’Bone Man’s distinctive vocals soon kick in, peppered with breezy falsetto notes and gospel backing vocals as he questions whether his relationship has come to an end. The piano medley and drum-machine beats which open subsequent ‘Be the Man’ could be mistaken for something from an Ed Sheeran album. Nonetheless, the track soon evolves into another expression of a man tied up in love, perhaps surprising to some from a large-framed, heavily tattooed artist once mistaken for a bouncer at one of his own headline shows. ‘Love You Any Less’ is another song of passion, this time much slower than its predecessor.
Following number ‘Odetta’ is a further emotional piece with Sam Smith-style soul. Speaking at a concert for War Child, Graham explained how the song is for a friend who recently had a daughter called Odetta; this by now further cements the varying forms of love expressed in the debut LP. Tracks eight and nine, ‘Grace’ and ‘Ego’, touch upon appearance and perceptions of others, with contemplations such as ‘I wonder why we give up on love/when it’s always within reach’.
As the album reaches its final few songs, ‘Arrow’ is a shake-up of tone and tempo with its Motown inflections. Penultimate number ‘As You Are’ rhythmically and lyrically reverberate early tracks on the album as Graham admits his content with life, despite other issues, as ‘all I needed was your love’. Ending acapella number ‘Die Easy’ rounds off a striking debut from a man with a remarkable voice. It’ll certainly be intriguing to see where Rag’n’Bone Man goes from here – he’s only human, after all.