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The debut album from singer-songwriter Samm Henshaw has a heavy American flavour. Built from strains of rootsy, old-school soul, 90s hip-hop, bluesy jazz and gospel, tracks such as Chicken Wings – with its references to “curly fries super-sized, sweet tea and lemonade” – and Waterbreak, a dreamy sax interlude preaching hydration, seem to be marinated in its culture. It’s there in a literal sense too: Henshaw delivers many of his lyrics in an almost cartoonishly strong US twang.
So it’s a little disorientating to discover that the 26-year-old actually hails from south London. In fact, it’s a piece of context that could easily nudge this record into the realm of clever, tasteful but unremarkable tribute, rather than bracingly personal work of art (although it should be noted that the gospel influence can be traced back to his reverend father; the British strain of the genre is perennially overlooked).
What prevents Untidy Soul from falling into that category are Henshaw’s lyrics. His themes are intimate and of the moment: this is an album about modern notions of selfhood – fallibility, hypocrisy, self-improvement and self-worth. Enough meditates on perfectionism; opener Thoughts and Prayers is a frank internal monologue about morality and self-image; on Still Broke – written after he was dropped from Columbia – he fails to find validation in work, money and fame.
Gratifyingly, none of this is carried out with a self-serious, woe-is-me attitude – instead Henshaw comes across as wry, low-key and self-effacing. Perhaps there is some distinctively British character here after all.