Released the year Britain voted for Brexit and America voted for Trump, Rag’n’Bone Man’s single, “Human”, echoed across the world like a big, bruised, bearlike appeal for empathy. The Sussex careworker’s blokey beat-blues resonated in the wounded chests of those on both sides of the debates, as we all faced the extent to which we’d been polarised by our online bubbles. “Take a look in the mirror and what do you see?” asked the man born Rory Graham, “Do you see it clearer or are you deceived?… You’re only human after all/ Don’t put the blame on me.” The song racked up 1.1 billion views on YouTube and the 2017 album, also called Human, quickly became the fastest-selling debut album by a male artist during the 2010s.
All the critics admired the strength and sincerity of Graham’s ragged holler. But The Guardian’s Kitty Empire was right that much of the soul-life songwriting and production “smacked as much of Michael Bolton as Ben E King”. And this is a problem that hasn’t been fixed by his second album, Life by Misadventure.
His publicists say he “tore up the rule book” by going to Nashville to write and record the new material, returning to the UK just before the pandemic erupted. I’m not sure which rule book Graham’s been using, but knocking out radio-friendly roots music is what Nashville does. The corporate-run Music City is also known for playing safe-but-dull with polished pop formulas. So although Graham flew to the US determined to expose the unvarnished truth about how the shock of sudden fame collided with the birth of his first child, Reuben, and how “messed up” he felt after his 10-year relationship with Reuben’s mother ended, Nashville has squeezed those raw, specific emotions into impersonal little song tubes.
Don’t let the geography give you the wrong impression, though. Life by Misadventure isn’t a country album. Apart from a little between-tracks banter with a Good Ole Southern Boy of a session musician, the casual listener wouldn’t guess where it was made.
Although its pulse is less electric than that of Human, Life by Misadventure is a pop-rock-soul offering, which drifts into slightly more arresting rock/post-punk territory towards the end. It starts with the porch swing acoustic “Fireflies” (on which Graham offers fairly standard life lessons to a son who’s “growing like a weed”), tumbles into a steady groove with “Fall in Love Again” (about his reticence to commit to new relationships), and coasts into a duet with P!nk, in which the likeable pair sigh out their struggles with celebrity life over a reverby piano and yearn to be “Anywhere Away from Here”. Reaching for a sweet, vulnerable falsetto on the track, Graham sounds great. But P!nk’s easy knack for storytelling highlights his weakness on that score. His tendency to hurl the same emotional intensity into every syllable (loud, soft, high, low, new idea or repetition) gets wearing. It doesn’t help that the melodies are often simplistic to the point of forgettable and the production seldom leaves a space unfilled.
Things get more fun with the anti-gentrification rock of “All You Ever Wanted”, on which Graham changes the emotional pace a bit from brave/hurt to genuinely angry, as he laments the loss of graffitied subway trains and “kids with spray cans jumping over fences”. The track is energised by screaming, Killers-esque scrawls of electric guitar and neon synth tags. “Crossfire” is a walloping big, two-of-us-against-the-odds stadium belter that finds Graham channelling his inner Springsteen. “Somewhere Along the Way” has an easy-going, low-slung sway that recalls Liverpool’s Eighties soul band The Christians. The lilting tempo clearly got Graham relaxed: it’s the only track where he sounds like he’s having fun.
Through even the blandest moment, Graham retains a copper-bottomed integrity and commitment. I think he’s got the talent to do better than this. But he’s finding his way through a tough time. And he’s only human, after all.